Americana anthem swap-meet 

A live review of American Aquarium and Shovels & Rope

American Aquarium, Shovels and Rope, Lera Lynn
Pour House
Feb. 11

Filled with locals, out-of-towners, and raucous energy, the Pour House was a hotspot on Friday night. After an intriguing opening set from Lera Lynn and her band, who had a mysterious swagger all their own, the king and queen of local indie/country, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, took the stage.

With their trademark sloppy gusto they alternated strumming guitar and banging drums while howling away on several of their more popular originals. After the title track from Trent's latest, The Winner, they hit their stride with "Boxcar" off their first album. And on Hearst's new "Hell's Bells," she screeched, "Cocaine makes you grind your teeth all night" over and over as the drums kept pushing.

Regardless of the lyrical subject matter, their stage demeanor is light and fun. A few songs were muddy, a sonic quality they seem to like, but they were best on the slower tracks, where they could take a breath and let the song trickle out, like on their classic "A Mother's Scorn."

Shortly after taking the stage, American Aquarium's songwriter and front man B.J. Barham buttered up the crowd, saying, "Charleston is one of my favorite places to just chill and drink a lot." The headliners eased into their set, growing with each song, and finally Barham released his trademark howl, screaming through the early highlight, "Katherine Belle," off their new album, Small Town Hymns.

With his red Gibson acoustic guitar and tattoos up his left arm, Barham definitely strikes an image, but it is the combination of his reedy voice, the band's fantastic, unrelenting energy, and the ever-present floating of Whit Wright's pedal steel guitar that set them apart from other good bands.

Barham introduced Tom Petty's "Listen to Her Heart" by saying, "This is a song we didn't write but we love to play." It's no wonder it appeals to them. With its bittersweet feelings about an ex-girlfriend and condemnation of the new asshole boyfriend, it fits right in with a lot of their songs about heartbreak and revenge.

"This is a song about a girl in a small town doing everything she can do to get out of a small town," Barham said as he introduced another new one, "Nothing to Lose." In it, he painted a hard picture of real life, singing, "As we pulled out of her daddy's place/A smile crept across her face/And she said are we really gonna do this?/That's when we both realized we were leaving all the bad behind/And we started shouting broken hallelujahs." It's this kind of storytelling that he excels at. The ability to transport an audience to a different place is rare these days.

Their second cover of the night, Whiskeytown's classic "Excuse Me if I Break My Own Heart Tonight," featured the return of Hearst to sing the Petty part on the record: "When the rain falls down on your Mississippi town ..." As Hearst slinked off the stage to loud cheers, Barham shouted, "That's one of the main reasons I love Charleston, South Carolina: local artists who'll come out and do this with us!"

It's nice to see a well-executed set list that keeps gathering steam as it goes along, and with perfectly placed restraint and firepower, these boys pulled it off. As 2 a.m loomed, Barham said, "We've got another song for you, and I bet you can guess what it is. Now y'all be safe on the way home and don't hit anybody," before singing their most popular song, "I Hope He Breaks Your Heart." The late-night crowd swayed and yelled along at the top of their lungs, "I hope he breaks your heart/And I hope you cry all night/And I hope you feel the way I do now." You could feel the cumulative release of the 300-person crowd spitting out the venom they reserve for that one special ex. It was definitely a moment.


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