Review: American Aquarium
Touring behind a new album, Raleigh-based band lights up Washington, D.C.'s 930 Club
American Aquarium’s Bo Barham has high praise for Washington, D.C.’s 930 Club, calling it “pound for pound the best rock ‘n roll club in the country.” On Sunday night, Barham and his band did the venerable institution proud.
Touring behind the new “Chicamacomico,” the North Carolina group brought its tried-and-true mix of twang and rock — mixed with a bit of politics — to the nation’s capital, blazing through a 24-song set that featured cuts from seven of the group’s nine studio albums.
Barham, the only constant in American Aquarium’s many lineups, has been examining life’s dark corners in his lyrics for the group’s last two original studio efforts — 2020’s acclaimed “Lamentations” and the new album, which was released on June 10. In the oddly titled “Chicamacomico,” which is the name of a decommissioned life-saving station on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Barham deals lyrically with the aftermath of his wife’s miscarriage and its effect on their marriage, the death of his mother and his father’s reaction to it, and the loss of a friend to suicide.
But, Barham insists, the new songs fit within the rest of the band’s catalogue, and he set off to prove it from the start of Sunday’s high energy show, which was a catharsis for anyone who felt the need to yell and scream with permission two days after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Two cuts from the new album — the title track and current single “All I Needed” — led off Sunday’s high energy show. While the first is a somber look at the aftermath of the miscarriage — the line “I swear I’m gonna lose my mind if I have to hear about God’s plan one more goddamn time” is raw in its first-hand knowledge of the pain Barham and his wife went through — the second is a love letter to the power of music.
“It was a hook, it was a line / It was a savior in 3/4 time / I was out there losing my mind when all I needed was a song,” Barnham sang Sunday night, restlessly moving around the 930 Club stage.
And with that, the band was off, playing five songs each from “Burn.Flicker.Die,” the group’s acclaimed 2012 album that made them something to watch, and 2015’s “Wolves.” Four songs from “Lamentations” and “Chicamacomico” also were part of the set.
Barham concluded the set with “Burn.Flicker.Die.” before returning for the encore with keyboard player Rhett Hoffman to play a lovely version of “One Day at a Time” from the new album. The set closed with everyone dancing and singing along to the rousing fan favorite “Katherine Belle” from “Dances for the Lovely.”
I came late to American Aquarium, having heard a few tracks from “Things Change” — represented Sunday by “One Day at a Time” and “The World’s on Fire” — before getting into “Lamentations” and their latest album. On Monday, I spent most of the day digging through their back catalogue and Barham’s excellent solo album, “Rockingham.” Now I can’t wait for them to return to the area and to the club that Barham loves so much.
Or, as he said in a Facebook post on Monday, “Every single time I get to step on that stage I’m reminded how fortunate I am to do what I do for a living. Childlike amazement. Every. Single Time.”
For this leg of the tour, American Aquarium is fortunate to be accompanied by an opener who also has great memories of the 930 Club. Caroline Spence, a native of Charlottesville, Va., recalled coming to the club as a 17-year-old to see Death Cab for Cutie. Her dad, she said Sunday, drove them and then went to a bar.
Spence, out in support of her new album “True North,” is known for vivid lyrics that were on display — along with a terrific sense of humor — throughout her solo set. “Playing solo is hard,” she said after a lovely version of “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes?”
“You hope the band knows the songs,” she said. “At least you know you can make audibles without making any sounds.”
During “Blue Sky Rain,” a song off the new album, Spence stopped early on. She had missed a lyric and messed up a chord. “That was for me,” she said. “This one’s for you. If anything you can say you can saw me perform that live for the first time.”
Spence’s short set was highlighted by “Mint Condition,” one of two “Mee-maw songs” that she recorded with Emmylou Harris, and the terrific “Clean Getaway.” The latter song, written during the pandemic, is about how you “can’t run away from yourself” no matter how hard you try.
“It was written while we were stuck with ourselves,” Spence told the crowd. “I thought I would do all the things I was supposed to do, like start running and reading all the books I always wanted to, but all the things caught up with me and sat like a pile of shit on my heart.”
With that, she then brought it around for a terrific (and true) punchline: “I went into therapy. I recommend it. For males over 25, trust me, that’s the hottest thing you can do.”