“I had a problem,” American Aquarium’s BJ Barham tells the crowd halfway through their sweat-drenched set at Knuckleheads Garage in Kansas City. “So I fixed it.”
The “problem” he’s referring to is his battle with alcoholism (he’s been sober since 2014), but as the alt-country band’s lead vocalist, principal songwriter, and founding member, Barham has been fixing problems since American Aquarium’s inception in 2006—the band’s as well as his own.
Upon its founding, members came and went through a veritable revolving door until, sometime around 2007 or 2008, a lineup solidified. Several acclaimed albums followed over the ensuing years, and the band gradually gained new fans through relentless touring and strong word of mouth. Then, in April 2017, Barham dropped a bombshell: the other members of the band had decided to go their separate ways, leaving the North Carolina native all alone with a new album’s worth of material to record but no band to back him up. Faced with yet another enormous problem, he did the only thing he knew to do: he fixed it.
Within a scant few months, Barham filled American Aquarium with some of the best musicians Texas and Nashville had to offer and hit the road. Then, with a tour under their belt, the guys went into a Tulsa studio to cut that new album.
The result is Things Change (New West Records), out June 1st. And while this particular iteration of American Aquarium have only been playing together just over a year (or perhaps precisely because of that fact), BJ Barham seems to have a renewed sense of vigor which is palpable when the band hits the stage at Knuckleheads with The World is On Fire, the opening track to the new album. They sound like a well-oiled machine, propelled by rhythm section of Joey Bybee on drums and Ben Hussey on bass. The combination of Adam Kurtz’s pedal steel (and occasional six string) guitar and Rhett Huffman’s keyboard and organ work add a rich sonic layer to the proceedings, and Shane Boeker’s guitar manages to be both rip-roaring and restrained, depending on the needs of the song.
Then there’s Barham.
Oozing charisma and charm the way much of the crowd drips alcohol-infused perspiration, the vocalist has the ability to move from rock-tinged rasp to tender, touching delivery with ease, oftentimes in the same song—such as when the band plays Casualties, from 2012’s Burn. Flicker. Die. His voice has never sounded better when he howls “I used to be a decent man, then life took it’s toll/Now I’m just a casualty of Rock n Roll”, and the crowd moves to the beat and shouts their approval.
Barham’s rapport with the crowd is effortless, as he encourages everyone to enjoy themselves on the Sunday of a holiday weekend, which he deems “Second Saturday”, and makes it clear that even though he himself no longer partakes of any beverages stronger than Pellegrino, his fans are by all means welcome to imbibe to their heart’s content.
At one point, a little over an hour in, there’s a lull. Blame the oppressive heat, blame the crowd’s inability to ride a nice buzz for the duration of the show (which itself may be due to Knuckleheads exorbitant drink prices), maybe even blame the band itself for being a tad self-indulgent by playing almost two full hours and simply wearing down the room.
It lasts just a few songs, though—until Barham kicks into Abe Lincoln, which leads American Aquarium into the home stretch of their set, packed with songs dominated by Burn. Flicker. Die. and 2009’s Dances for the Lonely. As the song PBR Promenade reaches completion, all six members of the band exit the stage and many believe the show is over, beginning the procession out of the venue. Most are too far gone (literally and perhaps also figuratively) to realize BJ Barham has wandered back onstage alone.
He is not there to simply soak up applause. With his trademark cherry red Gibson in tow, Barham launches into a wonderful cover of Darkness on the Edge of Town, fully embracing the comparison that some are just realizing but many have known all along: “He sounds a lot like Springsteen, huh?”
And that he does. So much so that it’s not hard to believe some could be convinced that this cover is actually The Boss himself. It’s a fitting way to end a triumphant night for both Barham and the band.
In fact, watching BJ Barham hover around the merchandise table after the show, meeting and greeting fans, posing for selfies and signing t-shirts and trucker hats emblazoned with the American Aquarium logo, one can’t help but wonder—is there any problem this guy can’t fix?