american aquarium live review and photos

We’re Not the Men We’re Supposed to Be | American Aquarium Live Review | Will’s Pub Orlando | April 11, 2015

by • April 13, 2015

The human brain wants to categorize and connect things. We think metaphorically from an early age. We insist on making connections to what we know. In no place is that thought more evident than when speaking about music. One band sounds like Bob Dylan playing gypsy punk. Another feels like The Rolling Stones as envisioned by Thom Yorke.

It is natural for us to make such connections as a way to explain the unexplainable. Music transcends, so we are forced to relate things to our experiences. American Aquarium is the type of band that folks insist on categorizing. They sound like Drive-by Truckers or Lucero or, [insert Americana-influenced band here]. Some of that is fair, and necessary. We learn about bands like American Aquarium through rhetorical metaphor. A friend describes their sound and it resonates with something that we know. Yet, great bands cannot be pigeonholed.

The well documented folklore surrounding the band is indicative of our need to categorize and connect. They were named after a Wilco lyric from an album that famously almost ended that band; which turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy for American Aquarium themselves. Then they had their own near death experience with the album Burn.Flicker.Die. — a brilliant collection of tunes that were meant to be the band’s last. It was produced by Jason Isbell right as he began his own career renaissance. Fortunately, that effort proved to be an enormous success, and American Aquarium forged on, creating increasingly great art and captivating audiences like the one at Will’s Pub in Orlando on Saturday night.

Few bands enjoy the combination of enough success to incite a singalong, yet obscure enough to book rooms like the one at Will’s. Orlando favorite, Bartender Brian, set the tone for a night of great songs, the kind of tunes where you want each syllable emphasized. He was charmingly unaware of the fact that he was kicking ass, and understandably distracted by the fact that his wife was due to give birth at any second. Whether he realized it or not, Bartender Brian belonged on the same stage as the headliner, as did fellow openers, Mike Dunn & The Company. And the room was pulsing when American Aquarium finally took the stage.

Lead singer and songwriter BJ Barham’s swagger fit the mood like a glove. He channels “Live at San Quentin”-era Johnny Cash on stage, every bit the rockstar, yet approachable and authentic, like an impossibly cool friend. Barham is not Johnny Cash. American Aquarium is not Drive-by Truckers. They are a rock band with country sensibility that took us on a journey that felt like a bonfire singalong plugged into a drunken amplifier.

Every word to every song was parroted back to Barham by the rabid crowd. The enthusiasm for the lyrics was such that Barham stopped to tell a mountain of a man who was belting each word while standing right next to Barham’s monitor that his “passion is better than this machine.” Barham wasn’t mad as he pointed to the speaker that should have provided him with a touchstone, and he expressed as much; but the enthusiasm of Mr. Mountain would have been too much if there was such a thing as too much love for great Southern fried rock n’ roll in an intimate venue.

Part of that passion likely stemmed from the demographic of the crowd. Decidedly male, hirsute, and Generation Y, the people singing American Aquarium’s songs could naturally commiserate with Barham’s tales of approaching thirty and wondering whether it is time to settle down, grow roots, and raise a family. As he says in the gorgeous song that lit up the room, turning every patron into an overbearing background vocalist–“lonely ain’t easy.”

We’ve been there. Just like we’ve secretly hoped that our ex’s next paramour breaks his or her heart. And we have woken up on the “losin’ side of twenty-five” wondering what the hell we are doing with our lives, and whether we will ever become the woman or “man we’re supposed to be.” Barham gave us a lyrical photo album of our own coming of age.

American Aquarium earned the dignity and honor of not being compared to other bands Saturday night. Sure the room felt a bit like a Lucero show, with everyone swilling booze and belting out the lyrics to each song. But American Aquarium plays honest, clever, creative rock n’ roll that drives the id, and they do so in their own way. As Friar Richard Rohr, says “There is nothing to prove and nothing to protect. I am who I am and it’s enough.” That’s American Aquarium. And that’s enough.

No metaphor exists to explain what happened at Will’s Pub. It was a powerful show that extended its tentacles into the next day, forcing all of us to pensively approach our interactions with the “Anne Marie” ‘s in our lives. We are thankful for the heartache, appreciative of the pain, and are grateful that despite the fact that “lonely ain’t kind.” Bands like American Aquarium, songwriters like BJ Barham, and venues like Will’s Pub are there to sate the existential conundrums that plague us all in one form or another.

American Aquarium Live Review by Jason Earle.
American Aquarium Live Concert Photos by Martin Cardenas.

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