American Aquarium, Cory Branan, The Black Lillies
The Lincoln Theatre, Raleigh
Friday, Jan. 30

Much has been made of American Aquarium showing a newfound maturity on its latest record, Wolves, and it’s true that frontman BJ Barham is now more likely to spend his downtime gushing about his latest antique finds rather than practicing more depraved habits while on the band’s seemingly never-ending, decade-long tour. But with its Friday night set celebrating Wolves, the sextet silenced any smidgen of concern that they may be growing too soft for rock ‘n’ roll.

While Barham has long held court at center stage regaling crowds with a combination of playful shit talk and prideful, sometimes sordid tales, the loquacious raconteur hardly spoke between songs as he and the band plowed through nearly thirty songs during a performance that stretched for two and a half hours, finally ending shortly before last call.

Bookending its set with the entirety of its new record, American Aquarium also leaned heavily on fan favorites from its previous three albums. Downers like “Jacksonville” and “Harmless Sparks” sounded more resigned than ever, though the audience singalong on the chorus of “Lonely Ain’t Easy” proved they were no less crowd pleasing, rivaling that of longtime staple “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart.”

Given the abundance of relatively subdued new material, though, each of those rowdier numbers helped rouse the crowd from its respectful near-hush. Indeed, after the initial salvo of Wolves tunes, the opening riff of Burn. Flicker. Die.’s “St. Mary’s” caused the previously restrained crowd to erupt.

Despite attendees from far-flung locales—Barham claimed fans from 31 states and three countries would be in town for this weekend’s two shows, which have been sold out for weeks—there was still the definite feel of a hometown show. The Lincoln was spotted with Wolfpack hand signs during Wolves’ title track, thanks to a chorus that references the words of NC State basketball legend Julius Hodge. Slim’s—well known as the band’s favorite dive bar—received a healthy pop when mentioned during “Ain’t Going to the Bar Tonight.” Borrowing its chorus from North Carolina’s official toast, “Old North State” seemed a suitable anthem for the night, which was sprinkled with Barham’s usual array of references that prove his love for the area.

Though Wolves has rightly been heralded for Barham’s grown-up lyricism, those in Raleigh witnessed how the band has learned to leverage the full strength of its twin electric guitar attack. Longtime lead Ryan Johnson and last year’s addition Colin DiMeo battled on new tunes like “Family Problems,” exchanging volleys of Johnson’s twangy chicken pickin’ with DiMeo’s more textured playing, while Whit Wright fit flourished his always stellar steel in just the right spaces. With the rhythm section of Bill Corbin and Kevin McClain providing a robust yet nimble backbone—again, “Family Problems” is the instrumental highlight—the formidable band doesn’t seem at risk to let Barham’s growth to overshadow their own.

When a group is on the road as much as American Aquarium, it’s no surprise they form strong fellowships with acts around the country, four of which they’ve brought in for this weekend’s two-night stand. Memphis storyteller Cory Branan set the table Friday night with a solo set of his ragged tunes full of humor and hard-won wisdom. Knoxville’s The Black Lillies were much more polished by comparison, with Cruz Contreras and Trisha Gene Brady trading leads and sharing sparkling harmonies over neo-Appalachian shuffles.

Set List:
Man I’m Supposed to Be
Family Problems
Southern Sadness
Losing Side of Twenty-Five
St. Mary’s
Harmless Sparks
Ain’t Going to the Bar Tonight
Saturday Nights
Nothing to Lose
Lonely Ain’t Easy
Betting Man
Cape Fear River
Abe Lincoln
Katherine Belle
Northern Lights
Wichita Falls
End Over End
Old North State
Ramblin’ Ways
Who Needs a Song
City Lights (solo)
I Hope He Breaks Your Heart
Burn. Flicker. Die.

American Aquarium, “Old North State”

YouTube video