by Julian Spivey
American Aquarium and Cory Branan put on a fantastic show at The Revolution Room in Little Rock, Ark. on Saturday, May 26 for a packed crowd of adoring fans. Branan and American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham proved to the house they are two of the finest songwriters currently in the world of alt-country or Americana (however you want to label them).
Branan, the Memphis-based performer, does a lot of shows in Little Rock – I saw him just a few months ago at the White Water Tavern – and has become something of a cult favorite among fans in the area. He began his opening set on Saturday night with a couple of newly written songs as a means of testing them out. The songs, which I’m guessing are titled somewhat close to “Happy New Year” and “Look I Lost” sound like they will fit perfectly on a future Branan album. Branan is an interesting performer who seemingly never prepares a setlist before a show and just performs whatever he feels like in the spur of the moment and relies heavily on audience members shouting requests – he said on Saturday night that he was there solely “for you.”
After the new stuff he performed a couple of fantastic songs from his 2017 release Adios, “I Only Know” and “You Got Through,” the latter truly showing off his skills as a songwriter. A fan requested Branan do a song he had written about his dad and Branan asked, “do you want to hear the one I wrote before or after he died?” The fan said “both” and Branan obliged with the rocking “Daddy Was a Skywriter” and the deeply emotional “The Vow.”
Branan has a lot of frankly depressing songs and it’s these songs I seem to enjoy the most from him, especially off Adios, but on a bar venue Saturday night he stuck to mostly rocking crowd-pleasing fare like “Prettiest Waitress in Memphis,” “Tall Green Grass” and “Sour Mash.” It made for a truly fun and raucous opening set.
American Aquarium opened their 26-song epic set with three tracks off their upcoming Things Change, which comes out on Friday, June 1, beginning with “The World is on Fire,” which is my favorite off the album thus far and I believe an early contender for song of the year in the Americana world. “The World is on Fire” led into rip-roaring performances of “Tough Folks” and “Crooked+Straight.” The audience really seemed to love the new stuff and it seems Things Change could become American Aquarium’s best release yet.
I’m amazed at the level of intensity American Aquarium and particularly Barham perform with. It’s a long set of music – rarely do you see an artist perform 26 songs in a show – and they go 90 miles an hour down a dead-end road the entire time. Oh, and they’re performing on nine straight nights to begin the tour (with Little Rock as just the second show of the run). The group, from Raleigh, N.C., has been around since 2006, though Barham is the only original member with drummer Joey Bybee, bassist Ben Hussey, guitarist Shane Boeker and pedal steel guitarist Adam Kurtz all joining the band in April of last year.
Barham said that Little Rock was an important stop for the band and an important place in the group’s history as it was the first place the band really felt welcomed outside of their home state when they first began touring. He especially had love for White Water Tavern, which they included in their rocking song “Rattlesnake.”
The audience really ate up the group’s older stuff throughout the night singing along at the top of their lungs to performances of “Jacksonville,” “Wolves,” “Good Fight,” “Lonely Ain’t Easy,” “Wichita Falls” and “When We Were Younger Men” among others.
One of the best performances of the night was “Losing Side of Twenty Five,” the first AA song I ever heard a few years ago, which made The Word’s best songs of the year list in 2015. The song included a spirited introduction from Barham about how his good Southern Christian mother was confronted by a former teacher of his in a busy Sunday grocery store and asked, “you oughta be real disappointed that BJ decided to be a songwriter for a living?,” to which his mother responded, “Fuck you!”
Just as the show was starting to wind down and you didn’t think the band could amp the intensity up anymore they end the show with bombastic performances of “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” and “Burn.Flicker.Die.” You could surmise from the audience’s reactions to these performances that they were probably the ultimate crowd favorites of the evening.
The group returned to the stage for a great four-song encore consisting of “Harmless Sparks,” “PBR Promenade,” “Clark Ave.” and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to finish up the show. Barham said that if any songwriter wasn’t inspired by Springsteen than they’re doing it all wrong and I couldn’t agree more with that statement. The band invited Branan back to the stage to join in on the performance, which as a major Springsteen fan ended up being one of my personal favorite moments of a special night of music.