by Julian Spivey
Seeing American Aquarium in concert in Little Rock has become something of an annual tradition for me and my wife, Aprille. We first saw them at The Revolution Room (affectionately known as The Rev Room) in Little Rock, Ark. in late May of 2018 and I believe we’ve seen them every year since with the exception of the pandemic year of 2020.
So, there we were again at The Rev Room on Sunday night (July 23) for our annual night of fantastic, heart-pumping, sweat-pouring, rock music with a country tinge from one of the hardest-working bands in America.
American Aquarium frontman and songwriter B.J. Barham told the enthusiastic crowd at The Rev Room on Sunday night that Little Rock is like a home away from home because it was the very first city outside of the band’s home state of North Carolina (home base being Raleigh) that really accepted and took in the band and its music. You can tell what the city and the fans in the city mean to the band, and Barham in particular as the only original member of the band by the way he glowingly talks about it and its impact on the band’s career.
When I first saw the band in 2018 I did so because I had instantly loved the songs “The World’s on Fire” and “Tough Folks” off its, at that time, upcoming album Things Change and had remembered hearing “Losing Side of Twenty-Five” a few years before and enjoying it. They were also performing that night with another recent, at the time, favorite singer-songwriter of mine, Cory Branan.
Through that performance that night, subsequent performances, and excellent subsequent albums (2020’s Lamentations and 2022’s Chicamacomico) I’ve gone on to love the band’s entire repertoire – I posted on Twitter the other night after the show that all of their songs are terrific, which doesn’t even make sense to me. You can tell by the band’s sweat-stained shirts and energetic movements on stage throughout their two-hour shows that they’re one of the hardest-working bands you’ll ever see, but the music is so good it also seems effortless.
American Aquarium opened the Sunday night show with “Casualties,” from the 2012 album Burn.Flicker.Die., a perfect song to begin a night of raucous heartland rock with and somewhat of a theme for Barham and the boys.
It was a non-stop performance of fantastic song after fantastic song for the next two hours with much of the crowd singing along to every last word. The band went through older classics like “St. Mary’s,” “Lonely Ain’t Easy” and the beautiful “Hurricane,” which damn near drops me every time I see Barham perform it live.
They played plenty of the new stuff, the stuff that hooked me as a fan starting in 2018, with “The Long Haul,” “Tough Folks,” “Crooked + Straight,” “All I Needed” and “The Luckier You Get.”
They played both songs inspired by another Little Rock music and drinking establishment, the White Water Tavern (another of my favorite Little Rock concert haunts) with “Bigger in Texas” and “Rattlesnake” with Barham heaping glowing praise upon that venue, which I’ve seen him do before at The Rev Room and it’s always slightly awkward thinking of what the folks who run this place must be thinking, but having been to the White Water Tavern many times there is something special about “those old hardwood floors.”
The band had the crowd in the palm of its hand the entire night from the very first note struck, but both the band and the crowd were kicked into overdrive with the ending of the show culminating in fan favorites like “Wichita Falls,” especially “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” (the go-to sing-along for all A.A. fans) and “Burn.Flicker.Die,” which works as another theme song of sorts for the band with its chorus of “We’re no different than the neon lights/When you turn us on we stay up all night/We do what we can, we put up a fight/Then we burn too long, we flicker and die.”
Being a Sunday night and most of those in attendance likely having to get up and go to work the next morning the band didn’t want to do one of those cliché encores where they leave the stage and feed their egos by hearing the crowd clamor for their return, so they went straight into the encore with Barham taking center stage alone and the rest of the band taking a bit of a break. This is when one of the most riveting moments of the entire show took place – and frankly one of the most beautiful concert moments I’ve ever witnessed – and this was without Barham even strumming a chord on his guitar or singing a note. Barham told us a story about his mom. How much he loved her and everything she meant to him. Then he told us about the tragedy of her dying due to opioid addiction and how addiction runs in his family – I believe Barham said he was now seven years sober. He told us about how her death truly broke him when he didn’t receive his annual phone call from her at the exact moment on his birthday when he was born. Then he told us about his father and how his parents were married on the Fourth of July and how he made sure to be home for his dad on that day, and his dad one of the old-school tough Southern men broke down when he woke up on the first anniversary without his wife. He then performed “The First Year,” which was written about the entire thing he’d just told us. This was probably a 10-plus minute monologue from Barham to us in the audience just baring his entire heart and soul. It was truly special for everyone involved. Nobody interrupted with chatter. Nobody took the moment to get another beer or go to the restroom. He entranced us with one of the saddest stories any of us had probably ever heard – a story that I know personally affected some in the audience to tears because they had similar things happen to people they loved and adored. This moment in the show truly shown a light on the kind of storyteller Barham is – whether on an album or in conversation.
Following “The First Year,” the band returned to the stage, including the night’s opener Kate Rhudy, who had performed a lovely set before American Aquarium’s, for “Just Close Enough.” Rhudy, also a native of Raleigh, N.C., performed the song and other backing vocals on the group’s most recent album Chicamacomico.
The band ended the show, which is probably now my favorite of all of the ones I’ve seen them perform – they somehow keep getting better – with a raucous performance of “Katherine Belle,” which sent the entire crowd home with smiles on their faces.