Live music can be a joyous and cathartic experience. For those of us who live in its thrall, it can move us in ways like no other artistic endeavour or leisure pastime has the power to do. Having said that, it can also feel like a serious business. Something to which we must offer our utmost attention and pay due respect. Experiencing American Aquarium at the Brudenell on a dark February Sunday felt like both of these rolled into one.
Whilst they are most definitely a band in the true sense of the word, despite a range of personnel ins and outs over the years, American Aquarium are indisputably the vehicle for serious frontman and songwriter BJ Barham. BJ is serious about his performance, serious about the way he communicates and engages with an audience and is especially serious about his craft of songwriting. This is evident throughout tonight’s performance but most apparent when, after over 30 minutes of relentless delivery of one intense and powerful song after another, he addresses us directly for the first time.
There is no easy welcome and thanks for coming spiel (though that does come later), instead, as a warning to those present, he recounts with relish a tale about a previous evening’s performance in a city just across the Pennines that “shan’t be named”. At this show (in the Cottonopolis) there was apparently a gentleman who was insistent in his requests for a particular one of Barham’s songs; requests which the serious songwriter recounts he took great delight in rebuffing. Then in this show he proceeds to play said requested song, pointedly dedicated to the previous night’s requester. This exchange demonstrates both Barham’s frontman ability play to the audience and more importantly, his personal devotion to the gravity and sanctity of his song craft.
The focus of Barham’s songwriting has shifted over the near 18 years of his band. While he is still concerned with the blue collar edges and travails of everyday life and living, he has become increasingly impacted by the more personal themes of loss, regret and his own battle with alcoholism and the ordeals that underpin his addiction. Or as he describes it in more universal terms – “The things that test us as human beings”. We get a full range of these songs tonight, unsurprisingly with most recent LP ‘Chicamacomico’, well represented. The band hit us with raging early career barn-burners like ‘Casualties’, ‘Cape Fear River’ and an absolutely life affirming encore of ‘Katherine Belle’ (despite the Brudenell’s own Barnsley massive requesting the song during Barham’s “don’t yell songs at songwriters” intervention).
Especially in the first part of the set, all songs, new or old, are delivered with the full throttle bluster and gusto of the band’s earlier incarnations. It is loud, energetic and gloriously ‘in ya face’, with Barham throwing an array of shapes straight out of the rock band frontman 101 handbook. They are presenting as an unapologetic and unrestrained Southern country-rock band, take it or leave it. This Sunday night Leeds crowd definitely and without hesitation, takes it. Their records, shaped by Barham’s songs, may have become more tender, introspective and open hearted with this passing of time but this live manifestation of American Aquarium still rages hard against any gentrification of the live experience. This version of the band seems to have captured Barham’s ethos, the character and atmosphere of his songs, as well any we have seen over the years and have translated this into a near peerless show of country tinged rock n roll
We do get an occasional quieter moment in the 90 plus minute set, with gentler versions of ‘Lonely Ain’t Easy’ and ‘Northern Lights’, both from 2012’s career highlight ‘Burn.Flicker.Die’ (produced by Jason Isbell). But the most moving moment of the night comes with a solo acoustic encore of ‘The First Year’ for which Barham offers an affecting explanation of the song as a paean to his recently deceased mother. It is beautiful and tender and perfectly judged by this hugely skilful performer.
Those with a keen appreciation of both the work and life of their favourite Americana artists will have sensed significant parallels between Barham and someone recently lauded in a live review in these very pages as Americana’s first modern superstar. Jason Isbell may have the edge in crowd numbers (The Brudenell was barely half full) but that is not the be all and end all. Clint West finished his review of Isbell’s recent Manchester Apollo gig with some well-chosen words about attendance at smaller Americana shows such as this one, questioning where the thousands of people present at the Apollo were when it comes to smaller shows and making a plea for them to support grass roots Americana artists. Here was a perfect case in point. BJ Barham’s American Aquarium are the quintessential example of such an artist. They should appeal to any and all of those in attendance for Isbell. Having seen paint-dryingly dull sets from both Isbell and his previous employers in the last year (a minority view, it must be conceded), it is clear that Barham and his band of Wilco namechecking accomplices deserve at least as big a slice of that audience pie.
Their performance here (and at earlier gigs on this tour) show Barham to be a direct, heart on sleeve performer and for me this makes him and his band more engaging and exciting than almost any others operating in this ballpark. He might be serious but he is never distant. Watching American Aquarium you can still get up close and personal enough to feel the juices of a great live performance. There is never any danger of feeling that they are there to be appreciated and admired, but only from a distance, which is not always the case with our latest ‘superstars’. We should all be grateful for this opportunity and take advantage while we still can.
*Fashion end note: both Barham and Isbell sport classic taper fade haircuts and rock a double denim outfit. BJ carries these better as well!