American Aquarium and The Swearingens: April 13 at The Green Frog

“So it’s going to be that kind of night,” BJ Barham slyly announced as he swigged from a newly acquired bottle of whiskey. And what a night it was, as Raleigh N.C.’s own American Aquarium graced the stage at The Green Frog, offering the crowd a powerful set of soul stirring ballads and foot stomping rockers in the vein of Lucero and Drive-By Truckers.

Opening the show was Seattle’s own The Swearengens, who got the crowd hooting and hollering with their country twang. The band’s energetic set featured themes from an array of country staples from songs about drugs (“Bloody Gloves”) to songs about heartache (“The Letter (Don’t Look Back)”) and everything in between. Although the heart and soul of The Swearengens belongs to front man Fredd Luongo, Brigitt Rains, who Luongo called his “sassy backup singer,” adds an extra layer to the songs with her smoky vocals. The two sound good together, and one only wonders why Rains isn’t involved in every song? Overall, The Swearengens provided the perfect foreplay for the evening, warming up the crowd and building the anticipation for what was to come.

American Aquarium took the stage with a fire that burned all night long. Roaring through two sets, including a mini acoustic set by Barham in the middle, the band unleashed an extra helping of alt-country goodness on the Green Frog patrons. The band – Barham –vocals/rhythm guitar, Ryan Johnson – lead guitar, Whit Wright – pedal steel, Bill Corbin – bass and Kevin McClain – drums — brought their A-game, indulging the crowd in a plethora of southern fried tunes. You could tell the band was having a good night, not only because of the receptive crowd, but also because of the hospitality offered by their host. Barham mentioned halfway through the set how much “better the crowd was” than the previous nights’ show and how they were ready to cancel the next few weeks of the tour and take up residency at The Frog for awhile (I’m guessing quite a few people would enjoy that).

Rockers like “Rattlesnake,” “Burn.Flicker.Die” and “Casualties” kept the crowd energized, while slower songs like “City Lights” and “Road To Nowhere” demonstrated Barham’s true gift as a Bruce Springsteen-esque wordsmith.

Although everyone in the band sounded great, it was the pedal steel skills of Wright that really shined, especially when he joined Barham for a few acoustic numbers.  There is nothing like the sound of a pedal steel, and when it’s done right, it adds so much to a band’s sound.

Even though Wright kept my attention with his skills, the real star of the show was Barham. A pearl snap poet, Barham fully engages the audience with his stories and songs about living, loving and life on the road. All of his lyrics have a place in their respected song and none are wasted lines, which is a rarity today. You can truly feel the pain in his whiskey soaked voice.

Towards the end of the night, Barham apologized to audience, saying he was “sorry for all the sad songs” being played, but I don’t think it affected anyone’s mood, as there was no appearance of sadness among all the smiling faces in the crowd.

–Jared Curtis