“We are American Aquarium, from Raleigh, North Carolina…….”
It was more a declaration than an announcement, one that concluded the band introductions during an extended “Burn. Flicker. Die.” And it was a declaration that resonated with me far more than I ever expected it to.
Friday night saw B.J. Barham and band play Oklahoma City, the second of the pair of Oklahoma dates launching their 60 date tour. This tour is in support of their new album Things Change (New West Records), out on June 1st . The band played at the Tower Theater, a newly renovated former movie theater that has made booking Americana and roots artists a welcome focus. Hitting the stage promptly at 9:15pm, American Aquarium captivated, invigorated and inspired a nearly sold out crowd for the next hour and forty-five minutes. Leaning equally on new and older material, we were treated to a set list of twenty-four songs. Eight of the ten songs that make up Things Change were debuted. With little fanfare, the band kicked into “The World Is On Fire” followed by “Tough Folks;” two of the strongest tracks leading off the night.
One of the endearing qualities of Barham’s songwriting is his ability to take deeply introspective and personal topics and turn them into something that connects with the listener. In “Tough Folks,” when Barham sings, “I wandered through my twenties uninspired. Got my education at the end of the bar. I traded in my youth for three chords and the truth, and the ring of an electric guitar,” the listener knows that’s exactly what they’re getting.
Much like Springsteen, wistful, nostalgic tales of misguided youth and the difficulties of redeeming oneself are Barham’s specialty. Following the introduction of new material, the band carried on with a few older favorites including an exceptional “Casualties” and “St. Mary’s.” Another new song that struck home for me was “One Day At A Time” which Barham has stated in recent interviews is about his sobriety. The crowd seemed really captured by the honesty of the song, though it’s just odd to see an audience raising their drinks in an awkward salute of another’s sobriety. But perhaps Barham answers that within the memorable lyrics near the song towards the end, “But I don’t miss the highs and lows. The back and forth. The ebb and flow of letting down the people that are standing for me.”
The show continued with familiar songs and occasional new songs sprinkled in. “Family Problem” really demonstrated how happy this new configuration of the band is to be playing together. With a smoking pedal steel solo from Adam Kurtz, the song also saw Barham humorously, and unsuccessfully , trying to encourage bassist Ben Hussey to take front and center stage. The entire band is exceptionally tight and obviously well rehearsed. Lead guitarist Shane Boeker, and drummer Joey Bybee round out the rest of the band. The crowd highlight was a raucous sing along with “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart.” The aforementioned “Burn. Flicker. Die.”, closed the set and was an absolute stand out for me. Having not been overly familiar with the band before Friday night, the song was the one that won me completely over.
Barham had already informed the crowd at the Tower that the band had decided to sell CD copies of the new album a week early at the merchandise table for a meager $5. Prior to walking off the stage to end the set, he also encouraged anyone so inclined, to stop by and chat with him following the show.
The band returned with a four song encore that began with the new composition “ When We Were Younger Men”, an open letter to Barham’s former band mates. The final song of the night was a celebration of songwriting and rock and roll, a perfectly executed cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”, which saw opening act, Cory Branan return to the stage to handle the song’s final verse. True to his word, Barham not only spent over an hour meeting fans, signing autographs and taking photos, he also truly conversed with them. Rarely have I ever seen an artist so genuinely appreciative and interested in what fans have to say. It’s easy to want to root for this guy, and this band.
Opener Cory Branan played a very entertaining 30 minute set, centered around his new album on Bloodshot Records, Adios. The set also contained several recently written songs; recently written, as in within the past 2-4 days. Branan joked about the fact that he was playing a guitar borrowed from a friend, and apologized to the guitar for the abuse and scratches his inspired playing style seemed certain to inflict.
All in all, it was a wonderful night of music in Oklahoma City. American Aquarium continues their tour across the country well into August. If they are playing near you, I can’t encourage you enough to attend. Find the dates here: http://www.americanaquarium.com/tour/ Nor can I encourage you enough to pick up a copy of their new album, “Things Change”, here: http://www.americanaquarium.com/store/ I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with either.