Ask any musician and they’ll tell you, there’s no secret sauce for success. There’s no real explanation why some bands have immeasurable success and some are playing small clubs after tour stops year-after-year in the same city.
At least in the case of American Aquarium, there’s an upward trajectory. As lead singer BJ Barham told a modest-sized The State Room crowd last night, the band’s crowds weren’t always so modest—sometimes they were just plain dismal. He recounted an experience at the now-defunct Palladium. “I don’t know if y’all have ever seem three people standing in the middle of a room that’s supposed to hold 3,000 people,” he said, “But there’s no powering through that.” So, with that perspective, maybe things ain’t so bad for the Americana band, who seem to have all the right ingredients.
Barham is a great frontman for a band that has been a rotating door of supporting musicians since it’s inception. He’s tall and handsome in a rockabilly way, tattoos and a bolo tie tied together his look onstage last night as he strutted across the stage with a beautiful red Gibson J-45 guitar in hand. He seemed affable as he told stories about his ne’er do well uncle, his southern baptist upbringing and his recovery from alcoholism.
Maybe too friendly, in fact, as a few loud talkers nearly ruined the show, but Barham was mostly charming, even in his encounters with them. When one asked him something I couldn’t hear he replied, “Sure, during one of them slow quiet songs. Fuck everyone else who paid 20 bucks to hear it. You live your best life.”
Barham’s best quality, though, is a tremendous song-writing ability. He’s taken his southern roots and turned it into songwriting gold—not unlike Jason Isbell. And just like Isbell, his songwriting has become more clear-eyed in sobriety. On Things Change, the band’s latest album—and of which Barham told the crowd had a “self-explanatory” title—the songwriter’s songs are better than ever. With an underlying theme of political division, Barham’s songs take on new meaning in a post-Trump world.
It’s not just Barham up on stage. The whole band is tight, as Barham said during his encore, they are “a shit-hot band an asshole like me doesn’t deserve.” And they weave seamlessly from Barham’s more honky tonk songs to songs that, if stripped down to their basics, are really more metal than country—except for the pedal steel, anyway. And they seemed to have a good time with Barham as their captain—the keyboardist specifically smiled often throughout the show.
In fact, they all seemed happy to be there, Barham graciously thanked the crowd numerous times and promised to be back. Maybe next time, to an even bigger (and quieter) room.
Read all of our music coverage here.