Reviewed by Roger Sharman:
Way back, earlier in the year when I first became aware of this gig, I pencilled this into my calendar as a not to be missed show. As the date grew closer my excitement levels started to rise, heightened by the fact that I would have the opportunity to interview Bradley Justin (BJ) Barham, lead singer and songwriter, of American Aquarium.
I’ve been following him on Twitter for quite a while now, and in that time he’s become something of a hero of mine. His view of the world and life today ring true in my ears.
They open up the evening with ‘The World is on Fire’, written the day after election date in the United States, late 2016, and what a way to start a set. BJ perfectly narrating his way through this harrowing look at the world in which we live, demonstrating his passion and fight in an instant.
After a brief introduction, the guys really ignite the touch paper for the audience with ‘Tough Folks’, an instant answer to the opening track:
“Life ain’t fair / Saddle up boy and see it through / Tough times don’t last, only Tough Folks do”.
In this day and age that sentiment should be everyone’s mantra.
From the opening bars of the show it was apparent that BJ’s assessment of having put a ‘crack band’ together were absolutely spot on. The band, consisting of drummer Joey Bybee, Ben Hussey on bass, guitarist Shane Boeker & Adam Kurtz, the handle-bar moustachioed master of pedal-steel guitar, are tight and mean business, demonstrated in their rendition of ‘Man I’m Supposed to Be’.
The laid back luscious country sound of ‘American Tobacco Company’ from Barham’s solo album ‘Rockingham’, gives the crowd a chance for a brief inhalation of air and atmosphere.
Heading back to 2013’s ‘Burn. Flicker. Die’ Album for three tracks, one of my favourite American Aquarium tracks, ‘Casualty’ is up next. BJ as is his manner, leaving everything out there on stage, for his loyal disciples out in the audience. Staying in that era, The Tom Pettyesque ‘St Mary’s’ keeps the crowd on its toes, bouncing and hollering out every word. ‘Jacksonville’ really puts under the spotlight the Pedal-Steel playing skills of Adam, who I must say, had one of the best pairs of boots on that I’d ever seen. BJ’s vocals were tested to the limit there.
After that crescendo it seemed like the right time to lessen the strain on BJ’s throat momentarily with crowd favourites ‘Losing side of Twenty-Five’ and ‘Wolves’, both from the ‘Wolves’ album.
The beautiful and self-reflecting ‘One Day at a Time’, captured the beauty in BJ’s poetry in an instant, and Ben’s considerable prowess as a backing vocalist:
“For years the drinks were just a crutch / until the drinks were just too much /
I guess it comes with the job, hail, hail, rock’n’roll /
You see songs fulfill a human need to sit back and watch another man bleed /So for a moment, we don’t have to feel sorry for ourselves”.
From way back in the catalogue, came a rare gem and a real surprise, for me anyway, ‘Katherine Belle’ a song that really captures the talents of the entire band. ‘Ain’t Going to the Bar Tonight is another from way back – 2009’s ‘Dances for the Lonely’ album.
A real treat and highlight for me, one of my absolute favourite AA tracks ‘Lonely Ain’t Easy’ has the crowd belting out every single word like life itself depended on it. BJ’s voice laden with angst and sincerity like no other.
Mr Barham’s youth back in North Carolina, and his early experiences of the southern Baptist Church, his father being a Deacon, are highlighted during a slight break in the music, acting as the introduction to ‘Crooked & Straight’, which deals with the same subject. This song is absolute fire live!
Making up the set we were treated to ‘Betting Man’, a cover of John Prine’s ‘Sweet Revenge’, ‘Nothing to Lose’ and another real highlight for me, the incredible ‘Rockingham’ from BJ’s solo album of the same name (which, in case you have not heard it, happens to be one of the finest alt. country/folk albums I’ve ever heard),
The encore was as amazing as the tracks that had gone before, once more from ‘Rockingham’, ‘The Unfortunate Kind’, a haunting ballad that tears at my heart strings every time I hear it. That left time for ‘Burn. Flicker. Die’ perhaps American Aquariums most recognisable song, and what a song it is to round off what was one of the gigs of the year for me.
If you’ve not listened to American Aquarium, then you really need to, they have stories that need to be told, the energy of an earthquake and a live show that really is something to behold.