The Lineup

American Aquarium

Raleigh, NC

Locals American Aquarium might put just as many miles on its venerable white van getting to Hopscotch as any out-of-town act.  After all, with several cross-country treks completed while performing nearly 200 gigs each year, saying the Raleigh roots rockers have toured hard since 2006 debut Antique Hearts is insulting those four wheels. 

The band’s journeys have been metaphorical, too, as it has easily seen a dozen members come and go while trying to pin down its signature sound. With starry-eyed ballads drenched in keys, fiddle and pedal steel settling alongside cocksure, boot-stomping twang, sophomore platter The Bible and The Bottle lent itself to Whiskeytown comparisons, while last year’s Dances for the Lonely dialed up the band’s fondness for the heartland bar rock of The Boss and The Hold Steady. A stripped-down and solemn collection of confessionals, Smalltown Hymns—to be released this May—switches gears once again, landing in the neighborhood of Springsteen’s Nebraska.

Like Whiskeytown’s Ryan Adams, to whom he is often compared, frontman B.J. Barham’s songwriting prolificacy has been both a blessing and a curse over American Aquarium’s half-decade career. There’s little arguing, though, that when Barham’s at his peak, his output puts him in the company of Jason Isbell, Cory Branan and Lucero’s Ben Nichols. Take Hymns’ “Water in the Well,” in which Barham imagines himself a dirt-poor Southerner whose homestead slips into the hands of tax collectors. The disgraced farmer contemplates his next move—suicide or salvation. 

“Water”—like much of Hymns—largely downplays Barham’s backing band, though the current five-piece has no problem matching the singer’s brash showmanship on stage.  Honed by endless touring, the group’s versatile enough for both the bawdiest barroom romps—all honky-tonk piano and crackling electrics—and romanticized postcards from the road, where weepy pedal steel takes center stage. There’ll be no doubting where these road warriors are when they pull back into Raleigh—just listen for the rowdiest watering hole in town. —Spencer Griffith