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Shut up and Listen to American Aquarium

By Brent Hill Photos by Daniel Coston

February 16, 2015

There comes a time in every woman’s life when she just needs to tell a dude to shut the fuck up.

What better place for her to do that than at an American Aquarium concert. And what better time for her to do it than during lead singer BJ Barham’s quiet, acoustic offering of “Downtown Girls.” The female audience member just wanted to hear Barham sing the song, and for the obnoxious guy next to her to listen. Word choice aside, it was a beautiful moment of crowd participation. Brutal, irreverent, and kind of sweet– like one of Barham’s own lyrics.

jupiterascending10 Photo by Daniel Coston

And you know, she’s right. American Aquarium deserves our undivided attention. They have a lot to say these days. Only two months in and 2015 is shaping up to be a great year for the Raleigh based six-piece alt-country band. As Barham noted from The Visulite stage, their new album Wolves is sitting at number six on Billboard’s Heatseekers Chart. Couple that accomplishment with being named by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of The Ten New Country Bands You Need to Know, and maybe it’s time for everyone to listen a little harder.

After ten years and eight albums, the recent recognition is well deserved. Contrary to what Rolling Stone says, American Aquarium is not a new band, but there is something new about them. A revived spirit pulses through their new album, spilling over into the sanctuary of their live show.

jupiterascending10 Photo by Daniel Coston

An American Aquarium concert is a raucous affair, rife with the choral clink of beer bottles and expletive-laden crowd sing-alongs. However, this particular show at The Visulite seemed to have a little more depth, a little more purpose. It started with the the trickle of band members to the red lit stage, each coming out one at a time and adding their respective instrument to the swell. Then Barham finally comes out, straps on his guitar and starts singing “The Man I’m Supposed to Be” – a sweet, slow love song he wrote for his new bride– gently easing the crowd into the night that lay before them.

jupiterascending10 Photo by Daniel Coston

The twenty-five song set list that followed (Yes, twenty-five songs!) spanned American Aquarium’s entire career. A compilation crammed with their brand of alt-country swagger and backroad psychedelia where Whit Wright’s steel guitar careens through songs with unbridled precision. Song after song laced with addiction and redemption. Heartbreak and hallelujahs. Homesickness and happy endings. It’s deeply personal material, penned by man who has undoubtedly seen it all, done it all and lived to tell the tales.

But Barham’s lyrics aren’t just for himself. He writes songs dedicated to the brokenness in all of us. They’re songs that beg for healing and hope but exist in loss and loneliness. They’re songs about the stories we tell others and, more importantly, about the lies we tell ourselves. It’s a lot to take in– a lifetime of dreams and regrets condensed into one night.

jupiterascending10 Photo by Daniel Coston

Perhaps that’s why Barham and the band chose to end the show as it began– in the arms of a slow song, “Harmless Sparks.” Start slow, end slow. Ease in, ease out. Perhaps American Aquarium was making a point: Life is a messy, rowdy ride– so have fun– but at some point you need to stop, catch your breath and just listen. Because it’s not what we say, but what we hear that has the power to heal. It’s clear that BJ and the boys have learned to listen, and now it’s our turn. So shut the fuck up.

Listen to Wolves by American Aquarium

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