BJ Barham Orlando FL

BJ Barham Live Review | Will’s Pub, Orlando, FL | Tuesday, August 23, 2016

by • August 26, 2016

No Depression recently placed BJ Barham in the same discussion as Jason Isbell. This writer has long thought such plaudits appropriate, but there was always something just shy of the greats about Barham’s tunes. Excellent craftsmanship for sure, but not quite an Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, or Cory Branan.

There is a literary quality to that trio’s efforts. Barham was writing smart songs, but the construction of those stories allowed the listener to take a break between choruses. Songs about girls, booze, and the road were the norm. It was really, really good, but Barham had more to give.

Starting with Burn. Flicker. Die, and continuing with American Aquarium’s most complete record Wolves, Barham began exploring human relationships like some kind of sociologist-bard. Songs began to tell heavy tales about questioning existence and fighting demons.

With his solo record Rockingham, Barham has taken the huge step needed to comfortably sit aside Isbell, Simpson, and Branan — the truly special songwriters of a generation. At Will’s Pub in Orlando on a Tuesday night, Barham treated the room to a live performance of Rockingham. Opening with the somber, halting “Unfortunate Kind,” a song so powerful that even thought of it in the next morning’s light induces a welling of tears. Followed by “American Tobacco Company,” a song about boredom and self-worth — an examination of how this country treated its WWII veterans and how entitled so many of us behave today.

Despite only two listens — the record just came out last week — each number feels like a silent sing-a-long. Rockingham is full of instantly recognizable tunes. Their excellence is apparent, their characters accessible.

The greats put us in the emotional jackets of their characters. There is a piece of the writer in each one, but the advanced tunesmith creates an experience that is easily customizable for the listener. Not just a mirror reflecting back the good and not-so-good about ourselves, but something thought-provoking, even gut-wrenching.

“Unfortunate Kind” tells the tale of a person coming to grips with the loss of their partner of almost forty years. When BJ played it during American Aquarium’s show in Jacksonville earlier this year, you could swear the whole room was in tears. To hope for one song so powerful on a record is a high expectation. Even thinking we could get more than one is gluttonous.

Go out and find a boy who doesn’t gamble with emotions and looks at you the way your mother looks at me.”

Barham sings on “Madeline,” a song dedicated to “the daughter (he) hopes to have one day.” It feels a little like Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The difference being Simpson wrote his after having a child. Barham takes us to that unfathomable place of love we see in parents before becoming one himself.

Love. It is a theme weaved throughout Rockingham. Mostly love of family, but also of home, of place, of the music. Will’s Pub is floored by the spirit of authenticity coursing through “Madeline.” Silent reverence, save for a few whispers and gasps. It is the kind of song you play for a skeptic to convert them. The quality of “Madeline,” “Unfortunate Kind,” “O’Lover,” “Rockingham,” the whole damn album is ostensibly apparent. You hear it at a record store or coffee shop and have to run up to the counter to ask who’s playing on the speakers.

Writing about writers is an exercise fraught with self-doubt and unflattering reflection. Who are we to say anything about each other, especially critically. Sometimes, we are fortunate to write about someone with the self-awareness to acknowledge and celebrate their evolution. Someone who started out talented but distracted and refused to allow that to be the end.

BJ Barham is doing something special, something inspirational to all of us working on our craft and trying to improve. Each song, album, and performance finds him more deeply immersed in creating great music. “Madeline,” Rockingham, and Will’s Pub, on a Tuesday, provide ample evidence that Barham belongs among the great songwriters of this generation.

BJ Barham Live Review by Jason Earle, edited by Sarah Schumaker.

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