American Aquarium Astonish in London – Live at The Borderline Review *****

Alt-country rockers American Aquarium, one of the hardest-working bands in America who regularly play 250 gigs a year, blew London’s Borderline apart with an astonishing display of power, passion and panache.

Frontman BJ Barham smiled, sneered and snarled throughout with charisma and commitment. He is one hellova performer. This new iteration of his band, he made wholesale band member changes last year, is sensational. To single one out would be difficult, but it was good to see Adam Kurtz’ pedal steel prominent in the mix, so often the instrument is kept in the shadows.

The show got off to a great start with solo support from New Yorker Anthony D’Amato who played and talked a great set. He introduced a new song The Oyster And The Pearl and the highlight was the beautiful Passing. He is returning to London for a charity gig on 2nd December at The Islington.

I’ve only ever played The Borderline venue in Londonsaid BJ Barham.The first time I played here there were about ten people, the next time about thirty, and now there’s more than thirty” he grinned, facing a packed venue. The band is in the midst of a massive tour until Christmas to promote the superb new album Things Change.

From the opening The World Is On Fire you knew you were in for a treat. The band kicked ass and BJ Barham as front man is superb. Barking out lyrics in a Springsteen-esque fashion with energy and passion he grabbed the audience the throat and didn’t let go for the next ninety minutes and twenty songs.

Tracks included Man I’m Supposed To Be which slowed the tempo but not the intensity with a superb pedal steel intro. American Tobacco Company is the epitome of American country rock and Casualties turned from a lilting country ballad into a commentary of life on the road for a rock musician.

Barham’s drinking exploits are well documented, especially on stage when he used to down every shot of Jameson bought for him. Now he’s clean, and a father, but many of the songs relate to drinking. He quipped “I used to be a drunk a**hole for a very long time. Now I’m just an a**hole without an excuse. A sobering thought.” As in many songs from southern America, drinking and rock ‘n’ roll make good subject matter for Barham and he wheeled out I Ain’t Going To The Bar Tonight.

Brutally honest lyrics, brutally delivered, abound. In Katherine Belle there came the observant “She woke up on the wrong side of her bed. I woke up on the wrong side of town” and in the World Is On Fire the political “When did The Land of the Free become The Home of the Afraid?”

Lonely Ain’t Easyis a song about things not working out” which gives an insight into Barham’s musical upbringing: “She took all my records, the hits, the unknowns. She took all the Beatles. She took all the Eagles. She took all the Stones.”

Crooked And Straight was preceded by an eloquent soliloquy on Barham’s Southern Baptist upbringing. The John Prine cover Sweet Revenge was a highlight and the main set closed with Rockingham.

The encore began with Barham on stage alone to perform an emotionally draining and utterly brilliant The Unfortunate Kind which hit you between the eyes like Dory Previn’s Baby Be Careful. The band joined for the closing “this is rock and roll” stomper of Burn. Flicker. Die.

Barham joked that in Bristol everyone said the gig was “Brilliant” and in Manchester it was “Smashing”. He asked for a word to describe the London gig. Let’s start with “Astonishing” shall we? “Wonderful” could be another, or “Stunning”. One of the gigs of 2018. For sure.

Words by Chaz Brooks

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