“I traded my youth, for three chords and the truth,” cries BJ Barham midway through his fiery response to a Southern Baptist upbringing. ‘Crooked + Straight’ may have taken a generation to burst out, but it goes a long way to defining the state of defiance and retribution flowing through an American Aquarium live show. 2018 is brewing up to be a landmark year for this band operating out of Raleigh North Carolina. A brand new album titled THINGS CHANGE (and the home of the aforementioned track) has emerged from a revolutionary all-change in personnel and a raft of dates both at home and abroad has followed to re-enforce them as one of the best US touring bands currently stepping foot on British soil.
While the entity of American Aquarium is a wholly owned subsidiary of BJ Barham – the songwriter, musician, performer and inspiration - such an assertion is a little disingenuous to the stellar line up of crack musicians assembled for this latest re-incarnation of the band. Ace pedal steel picker Adam Kurtz and top lead guitarist Shane Boeker joined Barham out front on the cramped stage at Manchester’s Night and Day Café, but these guys would be the first to acknowledge the backroom trio of bassist Ben Hussey, Joey Bybee on drums and a keyboard player ripping up the B3 with a name that will come to me eventually!
This show in Manchester revealed a nineteen-strong song set list spanning an hour and half with a strict curfew meaning music probably curtailed some chat. Briefly, Barham mentioned sobriety and growing up in Reidsville North Carolina, curtly responded to gig talkers and request shouters, while really leaving what he has to say in the multitude of songs now spreading well into a second decade.
Only once did the band leave the stage for Barham to deliver on his own, but the performance of ‘Unfortunate Kind’ off the solo ROCKINGHAM record, conducted in a commendable pin drop environment, was utterly mesmerising. This 2016 album, which got a UK release on At The Helm Records, also supplied the title track and ‘American Tobacco Company’ to the set list, the latter re-enforcing Barham’s southern soul searching and storytelling alongside determination to rinse out the afflictions that surround his homeland and personal experience. Political writing does play a part in his art and ‘The World is on Fire’ from the new album mixes personal and policy especially in the significant line “if anyone builds a wall in her journey, baby burst right through it”. New family is certainly stoking the fire.
One astute comment was giving Manchester tough praise in commenting that there is a degree of dirt to the city, and is the type of place where the feeling of being stabbed resides next to some establishment offering a £25 haircut. A city he duly liked. As a non-resident of Manchester, I could not possibly comment, but the point is heard.
Superb songs just continually ticked off as the set unraveled. ‘Wolves’, ‘Hurricane’, ‘Betting Man’, ‘Losing Side of Twenty Five’, a cover of John Prine’s ‘Sweet Revenge’, any list of potential highlights is everlasting. A decent sound system in the venue allowed each lyric from Barham’s gravelly delivery to decipher, an outcome that also commends the band’s guile and craft. Pedal steel of the highest quality was prevalent all night, and it was noted that fellow top player Smokin’ Brett Resnick took a night off from playing in Kasey Musgraves’ band to pop along and join the audience.
Joining American Aquarium on this tour is New York based singer-songwriter Anthony D’Amato. His thirty-minute opening slot is a cut above what you get on the live touring circuit and represents an artist rapidly justifying the positive words that are seeping out. Assisted by the token acoustic guitar and harmonica, he came across as an accomplished artist, comfortably at ease in both a hipster bar setting in his home borough of Brooklyn and less salubrious establishments when the roads get dustier. Joining songs from his previous release COLD SNAP were a few numbers from an upcoming record including ‘The Oyster and the Pearl’, a track already out there to listen, buy and enjoy.
Twelve months ago, American Aquarium played a sensational show in Oxford that was just edged out by Chuck Prophet as gig of the year. Time will tell whether this night will go one-step further. However, there is nothing more BJ Barham and the boys could do to meet every ideal craved from the live music experience. Whether you want to anoint this band as country, alt-country, Americana or just good ole fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, the fun is in listening, believing and relishing everything they set out to accomplish. In the song ‘Casualties’, BJ Barham proclaims that, “now, I’m just a casualty of rock ‘n’ roll”. Probably best summing up American Aquarium is that they start out full of country sentiment before finding the fault lines of rock ‘n’ roll, not a bad place to be though. A wonderful fulfilling gig from an awesome band sums the night up perfectly.