Saturday, 25 March 2017

American Aquarium - The Bullingdon, Oxford. Friday 24th March 2017

Pedal steel, melancholic sentiment and the overriding effect of the song feeds the country side; Rock ‘n’ roll and a sharp degree of edginess feeds the alt side. American Aquarium is as complete an alt-country band that you are likely to come across in 2017. The power of live music never ceases to amaze and this five piece combo from Raleigh North Carolina has blitzed their way across Europe for the last month with a memorable set of debut overseas performances. Not that this BJ Barham-led band are novices to the live scene with annual gig returns running well into the hundreds across their eleven year tenure as a functioning band.

The Bullingdon, located on Oxford’s vivacious Cowley Road, proved an ideal venue for American Aquarium as they headed towards the completion of an interesting week-long run of UK dates. For an independent band on a first visit, a turnout approaching three figures was a respectable gathering and this will surely grow if BJ keeps his promise of repeat visits. This is highly likely on the evidence of this evening’s show coupled with the fact that he did pay us a visit as a solo performer last summer, suitably impressed enough to bring the band over less than a year later.

If like me your initial exposure to their music was limited to the latest studio album WOLVES and BJ’s solo record last year ROCKINGHAM, there was nothing to fear from the older material which raced to an outstanding first impression. ‘Casualties’, ‘Jacksonville’ and set closer ‘Abe Lincoln’ all surfaced from 2013’s BURN.FLICKER.DIE album with the title track off that record ending a four song sequence of BJ in solo mode. At this point we learnt of the debt the band pays to Jason Isbell who showed faith in their music at the moment when they were at their lowest ebb, questioning whether playing to diminishing barroom audiences was going to be sustainable. Five years on, American Aquarium is now flourishing and even the ever open BJ proclaimed the length of time he has kept his own demons at bay.

While the band was in sparkling form, led by new lead guitarist George Hage and extremely busy multi-pedal steel/keyboard player Whit Wright, the strength of BJ Barham’s focal presence is the show’s shining light. Honesty, genuineness, compassion and anger are just a few traits that form this songwriter which were particularly projected during the solo phase. It was impossible not to be moved during ‘Unfortunate Kind’ or believe in the sentiment behind ‘American Tobacco Company’. It was also unsurprising to hear BJ share his appreciation for Guy Clark and pay respects through a cover of ‘She Ain’t Going Nowhere’.

Tim Easton
On the topic of covers, there was an impromptu guest in the guise of Nashville based artist Sam Lewis who joined BJ on stage for a version of John Prine’s ‘Spanish Pipe Dream’. Their paths had spontaneously crossed during respective UK tours and re-united a single song tribute duo that had previously formed on the Cayamo cruise. However original material was generally the order of the day with set opener ‘Man I’m Supposed to Be’, ‘Family Problems’, ‘Losing Side of Twenty-Five’ and ‘Wolves’ celebrating the full glory of the latest studio album.

This full band performance, completed by a rhythm section of Kevin McClain on drums and bassist Bill Corbin, used every second of the venue’s ten o’clock curfew, leaving just a short window for the obligatory merchandise sale. Earlier in the evening, a colleague of BJ from his At The Helm records connection in the UK – Tim Easton played an entertaining opening half hour set. Hailing from East Nashville Tennessee and highly motivated by the solitary delivery of songs, he represented the folk side of the singer-songwriter fraternity, requiring only an acoustic guitar, harmonica and fistful of songs to share his wealth. Although for his finale, the excellent ‘On My Way’ from last year’s AMERICAN FORK album, Tim was joined by Whit on pedal steel.

Upon a fond reflection, both during a long winding –multi diverted journey home and the morning after, it was hard pushed to think of a more profound and enjoyable gig in the first three months of 2017. There is going to be plenty of competition from their compatriot big hitters as the year progresses, but American Aquarium is perfectly equipped to fight their corner. A pristine sound system was a credit to the venue and justifies Empty Room Promotion’s decision to continue to utilise the place with such fine acts. Perhaps it was the compelling, intuitive and sincere presence of BJ Barham that elevated this show into the upper stratosphere of a busy gig year, but there was certainly something special in an unfiltered atmosphere to move an audience in a multitude of ways. Welcome to the UK American Aquarium and welcome back BJ Barham. You will be held to your word for a swift return.

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