There’s just something in BJ Barham’s songwriting that resonates with me deeper than just about any other songwriter in recent memory. My first review for Americana Highways was an American Aquarium show last year. (That review can be found here: https://americanahighways.org/2018/05/28/show-review-american-aquarium/ ) When I walked into the venue that night, I had zero knowledge of the band, their history or, most importantly, the songs. Little did I, or my editor, Melissa Clarke know at the time, that that night was life changing for me. Not just in the fact that it resulted in my first published review and photos, but also in my new found appreciation and respect for Barham and his songs. I was hooked. I saw American Aquarium a second time last year (That review is here: https://americanahighways.org/2019/01/03/show-review-american-aquarium-lit-up-late-december-with-jamie-lin-wilson-at-okcs-tower-theatre/ ) and I just had the opportunity to absorb two sets of Barham solo acoustic at the best listening room in Oklahoma, the Blue Door.
Barham is the B.B. King of Americana. Much like the late King of the blues, his touring schedule is damn near year round. While his work ethic and shameless self promotion keeps him constantly on the road, he graciously gives the boys in the band some time off every now and then. During this time, many of us are fortunate to get the opportunity at seeing Barnham solo in more intimate settings. Barham’s deeply personal approach to songwriting is well known, and these solo shows give listeners an opportunity to hear the stories behind many of their most beloved songs.
While both shows on this night shared a similar setlist and tales, there were different energies present in both. Barham feeds off the crowd and undoubtedly any variations in the songs and stories are a direct reflection of this. Both sets on this night opened with “One Day at a Time”, a song that addresses his sobriety. Following the song, Barham addresses his 4 ½ years of sobriety by encouraging the audience to enjoy their evening; his decision to not drink shouldn’t affect their right to have a good time. After all, it’s a Saturday night. Many of the tales accompanying these songs were familiar from full band shows, though it’s decidedly fun to hear them in this extended, intimate manner. Barham is an accomplished storyteller. I don’t know that I’ve laughed so much in quite a while. One moment it was about the differences between a journal and a diary leading into “Losing Side of Twenty-Five”. Or perhaps the pronunciation of “pecan” following “Unfortunate Kind”, Barham kept us on the ropes with his humor and wit, landing punch after punch.
Most of the night was light and fun, but there were some purposeful serious moments to be sure. When discussing “Younger Men”, Barham likely became the most reflective and sincere while discussing his former AA bandmates. Addressing the fact that he’s had 38 bandmates over the years, He acknowledged that one is forced to look in the mirror. Ultimately, he hoped that one day those friends would hear that song.
Also, a highlight of both sets was the conversation behind the song “The World Is On Fire”. Barham addressed the loss of discussion and respect in our culture; the lack of empathy and plain old ‘meanness’ in the world. Focusing on the root of the problems we face these days rather than just chalking it up to political differences was refreshing and enlightening. Finally, a highlight of both sets was the story of being asked to play his favorite song. The conversation ultimately became a tale regarding the details behind “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart”, a song he indicates has been played by the band every single night following its conception. But not on this night. Rather, we were dramatically and humorously informed we wouldn’t be hearing that song. What I did get to hear in its place were two fiery renditions of “Burn. Flicker. Die.”, a song that is a personal favorite of mine.
Following each set Barham took up his usual place at the merch table, insisting on greeting and thanking each fan in attendance for their support while signing albums and posing for photos. It’s a genuine and sincere gesture and one that endears Barham to his fans. Truth is, I’m not sure who is having more fun at these shows, Barham or those in the audience. As you read this the solo tour will be just about complete. But fret not, American Aquarium dates are already being announced. All those dates and more information on BJ Barham and American Aquarium as well as merchandise can be found here: http://www.americanaquarium.com/