By Grant Golden
January 20, 2020
When it comes to musical motifs, few are as long standing as that of the roots musician and their hometown. Whether it’s a deep-brooding disdain or a beaming sense of pride, songwriters and narrators seem inextricably tied to the place they’re from. Plenty of internationally acclaimed artists wear their North Carolina badge with pride, but few have gone to the lengths that BJ Barham and American Aquarium have to give back to those communities. For the past six years, American Aquarium has taken over Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre on the last weekend of January to showcase the vibrant culture that has helped make Raleigh one of the fastest growing cities in the country. This year’s Roadtrip to Raleigh shows boast acts like Charley Crockett, Futurebirds, Mike & The Moonpies and Kelsey Waldon, but for many there’s no greater pull than the opportunity to see Barham on his home turf.
“Lincoln [Theater] is home court advantage for me,” Barham said. “It’s a place where I feel at home. I want that to translate to people. It’s not just seeing me in a sterile metal box, it’s a place where I’ve got 15 years of history — a place where I’ve opened up for some of my favorite bands of all time, where I started to build an audience in my hometown.”
While American Aquarium cut their teeth in the dive bars and music halls of Raleigh, they never saw the same level of love in their home city that they did across the country. Since 2006, Barham and a rotating cast of musicians have been running national tours at least once a year, regularly racking up hundreds of shows annually. All of that legwork paid off, but for some reason it wasn’t fully translating to Raleigh, so when it came time to celebrate the release of their 2015 album Wolves, the idea of Roadtrip to Raleigh was born.
“We decided…we should invite ALL of our friends and fans to experience the city of Raleigh. Let’s showcase it, you know? Anyone who’s been here knows how great of a city it is, but a lot of people think it’s just an airport town connected to Durham and Chapel Hill,” said Barham. “We wanted to showcase the culinary scene, the bar scene, the fact that this is our Austin…a super creative, progressive center.”
Since the inaugural event, the mutual adoration between American Aquarium and the fellow creatives of Raleigh has only continued to blossom. BJ and crew create a list of recommendations for incoming fans, ranging from a cheap slice of pizza to dinner at the many James Beard Award-nominated restaurants. In return, fans have had opportunities for VIP dinners from Ashley Christensen, specially brewed beers for American Aquarium from Trophy Brewing, and much more. With an additional 1,500+ folks coming into town in what’s typically a slow season for the service industry and tourism, BJ and American Aquarium have started to develop a strong economic impact on the small businesses of Raleigh.
That’s what makes the Roadtrip to Raleigh shows so special; it feels like a buzzer-beating three pointer to win the game, and we’re all wrapped up in storming the court. Barham and company are in their element at these shows, leading 800 people from over 30 states and several countries in a massive sing-a-long from the opening note to the closing chords. While their two-night stay at the Lincoln has sold out both nights for several years in a row, there’s no plans to push this into the Live Nation-owned Ritz despite it boasting over double the capacity, because that’s just not what American Aquarium is about.
“This is about tipping the hat and saying ‘thanks for taking a chance on me’,” Barham said, “and if you haven’t seen us in front of this Lincoln crowd then you haven’t seen us. It’s every super fan from every city singing along to every word from every song…it’s deafening at some points. It’s just one big sing-a-long, and as an artist…what more could you want?”
Check out more info on American Aquarium’s Roadtrip to Raleigh shows on January 24 and 25 at Lincoln Theatre.