Live Review: BJ Barham, Jammin' Java, 12/3/2016
By Matthew Martin
If you don't know who BJ Barham is, I'll go ahead and get that out of the way. He's the frontman of longtime, hard-working band, American Aquarium out of Raleigh, NC. His debut solo album, Rockingham, is something else and I highly recommend it. If there's one thing that I don't like about the album it's that it is a short album at only 8 songs. But, that's unfair. Many great albums contain 8 songs- both Japandroids albums, Led Zeppelin's IV, Metallica's Master of Puppets, etc. The album doesn't contain a blemish. It's the work of a determined man with stories to get out. For those that don't know the story- Barham and band were overseas when the Paris attacks occurred and the band was put up in a hotel for three days where Barham felt isolated and anxious, and wrote songs to deal with his situation.
With that said, BJ is a showman and live is the best way to experience these songs. I've seen American Aquarium play somewhere around 10 times, I believe. Hell, my dad has had the guys play in our front yard out in my hometown of Pulaski, TN. But I'd never seen a BJ solo show. Seeing him sing and play these songs live with only his guitar as accompaniment is a treat. I'll also go ahead and get it out of the way that it was a hell of an evening with about an hour and a half of music and stories in between.
BJ played all the songs off the solo album plus a few American Aquarium songs that really benefited from the solo setting. One such song was "Man I'm Supposed to Be." The song is already pretty minimal on the album Wolves but seeing it with just BJ and his guitar was really more of a punch to the gut than I had been ready for. Maybe it was the coupling with touching songs off the solo album, but it was quite a song to hear in that setting.
The solo songs were the real winners here, though, and the song "Unfortunate Kind" was the most effective. With the lines, "Do you remember that first week?/When you burnt that pecan pie/And I ate the whole damn thing/I couldn't stand to see you cry," you could hear the crowd nearly gasp. It's a simple statement filled with so many different emotions. It's a case-in-point of what makes BJ such an affecting and clever songwriter. The ability to take a mundane situation and make it into a moment with much more gravity – it's not something just any songwriter can do.
There isn't much more I can say about BJ or the show. If you get a chance to go see American Aquarium, go do so. But, if you get a chance to see BJ play a solo show, drop what you're doing and do it. He doesn't play as many solo shows as he does with the band and you need to see these songs played this way. So, go see him as soon as you can, and until then go buy Rockingham wherever it is you buy music. Support these artists so they'll continue doing these things that bring us so much joy.