by Julian Spivey
It felt so damn good to be back at The Revolution Room in Little Rock, Ark. for the first time in nearly a year-and-a-half for my first concert since the world was put on pause in early 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For someone who usually attends 10-plus concerts a year going more than a calendar year without live music truly left at hole in my life.
The Rev Room is my favorite venue in my home state of Arkansas. It’s a place where I’ve seen some of my favorite bands ever, been introduced to some great ones I didn’t previously know about and where I’ve spent many a terrific memory with my wife Aprille.
Not only was Friday, June 25 my first concert back in over a year, but it was re-opening night at The Rev Room, and you could tell it was an important night for everyone in attendance.
I was thrilled when I found out American Aquarium would be re-opening The Rev Room. My first time seeing the band was in May of 2018 at the same venue when they were about to release their album Things Change, which had already released the singles “Tough Folks” and “The World is on Fire,” which I absolutely loved. I wasn’t too familiar with the band prior to that, except for having heard and liked their song “Losing Side of Twenty-Five” off their 2015 release Wolves. I would leave The Rev Room that night a huge fan.
Last year the band released Lamentations, which was probably my favorite country/Americana release of the year, and included “A Better South,” the No. 1 song on this website’s annual 100 Best Americana and Country Songs of the Year list for 2020. It was a brilliant album, but with the pandemic the band didn’t have a chance to tour behind it until now. Their stop in Little Rock on Friday night was their fourth of the week and the tour.
American Aquarium, out of Raleigh, N.C. and fronted by vocalist/songwriter B.J. Barham, is one of the greatest live bands I’ve ever seen as they pour out every bit of energy they have on the stage. You can tell performing live music is what Barham lives for and it’s unbelievable the kind of intensity he can keep up on the stage for an entire set.
The band kicked off their headliner set at The Rev Room on Friday night with the title track from their 2020 album, “Me + Mine (Lamentations),” which was maybe an unusual opener for many shows as it’s slow and about life’s struggles, but it was absolutely the right choice and set the right tone for a first show back from a global pandemic where small independent music clubs like The Rev Room were lucky to survive.
The rest of the night was a fine mixture between veteran songs from the group’s back catalogue and tracks from Lamentations – both of which many of the fans in attendance knew all the words to.
It was somewhat surprising that the only performance from 2018’s Things Change was “The World is on Fire,” which was my favorite track from that album, and I was thrilled to hear it a second time live. “The World is on Fire” was this website’s No. 2 song of 2018.
The band performed the majority of Lamentations on Friday night with my absolute favorite performance being “A Better South,” of course. I feel like “A Better South” is such an important song with a terrific message about how us Southerners (us as in me as a reviewer/listener and Barham as the songwriter/performer) can be proud of where we come from, but also ready to rid the South of all the bullshit that past generations want to hold on to as their heritage.
There honestly isn’t a weak track off Lamentations, which made all the performances from the album highlights of the evening, including “The Long Haul,” “The Luckier You Get,” “Starts With You” and “Before the Dogwood Blooms,” which is still stuck in my head more than 48 hours later.
Little Rock is an important stop on every American Aquarium tour for Barham as he stated from the stage on Friday night as it was truly the first city outside of his home state of North Carolina to give the band a chance more than a decade ago, particularly the White Water Tavern (another local venue which hopefully will re-open soon). In fact, Barham has written songs inspired by White Water Tavern like “Rattlesnake,” which he performed Friday night. You could tell from the response the crowd gave the band that many of those in attendance had been following A.A. around quite a while.
Some of the “classic” American Aquarium tracks beloved by those in attendance on Friday night included “Casualties,” “Wichita Falls,” “Wolves,” “Katherine Belle” and, of course, the incredible one-two punch of “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” and “Burn.Flicker.Die,” which seems to end the set of so many American Aquarium shows.
The group would return for an encore that included a fun cover of one of my favorite ‘90s country songs “Some Girls Do” by Sawyer Brown, that the group featured on its most recent release Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers, Vol. 1, a ‘90s country cover album of some of their favorite songs of that era that they recorded just to have a bit of fun while they couldn’t tour.
Nashville’s Gabe Lee, who has released two really strong albums in the last couple of years – 2019’s farmland and last year’s Honky Tonk Hell – opened the show on Friday night and sounded absolutely terrific. He opened his probably 45-minute set with “Ol Smokey” off farmland, one of the highlights of his repertoire. Other great performances from his set included the title track of his most recent release and “Emmylou,” which he set his guitar aside for in favor of a keyboard and just dropped the jaws of those listening.
This was truly a perfect night to get reacquainted with my love of live music and I can’t wait for my next show.