by: Thomas D. Mooney
American Aquarium, with a new, revamped lineup in tow, kicked off their Fall 2017 tour at Lubbock’s Blue Light last night to a sold out crowd. The countdown for this night has been ticking ever since five of the six members of the “Classic American Aquarium” lineup stepped away from the band this past Spring.
With lead vocalist BJ Barham crisscrossing the Lower 48 on a solo tour and the rest of the band–Ryan Johnson, Whit Wright, Bill Corbin, Kevin McClain, and Colin Dimeo–all settling into life after AA, rumors and uncertainty filled the void left behind. Would this be the end of the band as we knew it? Solo? Split? Whatever the case, the passionate die-hard AA fandom–and Americana and Texas music circuits at large–wanted some kind of answer to the unresolved.
A month ago, Barham announced a two-month Fall Tour with a new cast of players–Ben Hussey, Joey Bybee, Shane Boeker, and Adam Kurtz in the fold. Last night, was the night.
For tickets and more information on American Aquarium’s current tour, click here.
- It’s difficult to talk about new AA without contextualizing and understanding how we got here. There’s a history with this band that runs a decade, six studio albums, an EP, and two live albums back. The “Classic” lineup was as sharp and tight a band as one would find. It grew into a well-oiled machine that seemingly never lost their footing with a misplaced note. By all means, they were hitting their stride. And while Barham was always the frontman, you thought of them more as a single unit than individuals or as hired guns.
- The Blue Light was the perfect place for them to kick off this tour. By all means, Lubbock is an AA town unlike any other. It was shooting fish in a barrel–even if they’d have fallen flat. No matter how confident you are in your own abilities, there’s little doubt Hussey, Bybee, Boeker, Kurtz, and Barham were looking to get this one out of the way. It’s a bit of an exhale and shaking out the nerves.
- It’s still slightly weird on the visual side. It’s going to be. It kind of has to be. After seeing upwards of 20-25 AA/Barham shows the last handful of years, it’s weird seeing Barham up there with different folks. And when you’ve seen Hussey, Bybee, and Boeker (This is the first time seeing Kurtz on stage) multiple times in various bands over the years, it’s amplified. It wasn’t that long ago Bybee would have been in the crowd at Blue Light for an AA show. It’s not bad by any means. Just strange–almost like a dream when you realize something is slightly off.
- Up to this point, they’ve only had two rehearsals under their belt. Currently, they aren’t who they’ll end up being after a couple of weeks of nightly shows. And that’s fine. In many ways, I kind of wish Lubbock was mid-tour instead of the launch point. Their performance was solid. I wouldn’t say paint by numbers exactly, but the four behind Barham are stretching into their roles. It’s not just growing into the songs either. It’s growing to understand one another on stage.
- For the most part, they played the songs true to form. There wasn’t a lot of coloring outside the lines. I think that’ll come in time. An example of that is fairly simple. With Classic AA, the interludes between songs was the icing on the cake. They seamlessly transitioned from one to next. Music was a constant. Those little touches haven’t found their way into the mix just yet. But again, only two rehearsals and a show into playing.
- Even with a seasoned veteran cast, you could sense everyone was laying back and letting Barham lead the charge. It was the most animated I’ve seen him in some time. He was out in front throwing punches with his vocal delivery. The Springsteen Stomp was fully charged. The Cash Guitar Raise was in full motion. Even the “Like Wilson Pickett, we were moving and shaking” of “St. Mary’s” coming out in full force. I think that’s going to be paramount going forward. Barham has to ensure crowds believe in this AA as the band gets their reps in.
- They didn’t just play any 18 songs within the AA catalog; they played 18 of the hits. Staples, classics, singalongs that make a crowd grow into a fury. This too, I think will help make the transition go smoothly. It was a lot of “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart,” “Wolves,” “Cape Fear River,” and “Casualties.”
- One of the best things about Classic AA was Johnson, Dimeo, and Wright bouncing off one another. There was a familiarity they had with one another that created a unique and specific ambiance. On the surface, it was trading guitar solos back and forth. But deep down, it was filling in the void and creating a boundless backdrop. You could see the baseline of that happening with Boeker and Kurtz last night. There’s a shimmering, shoegazy element to Boeker’s guitar and Kurtz pedal steel playing. Deep into the set, when they went “Cape Fear River,” “Family Problems,” “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart,” and “Burn. Flicker. Die.” there were some of these moments. Again, they’re just now peeling back that top layer of their potential.
- Flatland Cavalry played the night before. Another sold out affair. Two singalong nights in a row–almost juxtaposed to one another. Flatland was primarily girls singing out loud, hoping to find the perfect man. AA was a lot of drunk dudes singing to one another about the women who had broken their hearts over the years. Still, every girl in that bar looked like 1965–or at least tried.
- Despite Barham hinting at new material coming in the near future the past few weeks, no new material was debuted. Only time will tell if any new material gets thrown into the mix on this tour. I’m betting something will.
- “Northeast Texas Women” by Willis Alan Ramsey has become a staple of the AA set. As Barham mentioned last night, the Ramsey album is now on Spotify. Listen to it religiously here.
American Aquarium Setlist
Lubbock, TX.The Blue Light.08/31/17
02) Wichita Falls
04) St Mary’s
05) Lonely Ain’t Easy
07) Good Fight
08) Losing Side of Twenty-Five
10) Louisiana Beauty Queen
11) Southern Sadness
12) Nothing To Lose
13) Cape Fear River
14) Family Problems
15) I Hope He Breaks Your Heart
16) Burn. Flicker. Die
17) Katherine Belle
18) Northeast Texas Women [Willis Alan Ramsey]