At the end of the year, the concert season in any particular city can be hit or miss. Luckily in Tulsa, the concerts in late December were just as stellar as the rest of the year. Having missed American Aquarium their first time through Tulsa in May on the opening night of their “Things Change” tour, I’ve been trying to catch them ever since. As luck would have it, a December date was scheduled with up and coming, Texas musician, Joshua Ray Walker.
Let’s talk about Joshua Ray Walker. If you’re not from Texas, you most likely haven’t heard of him. He’s played with other Texas staples, the Old 97’s and the Vandoliers, but with the upcoming release of his debut album, Wish You Were Here, get ready for him to blow up in 2019 and start opening for bigger and bigger artists. Walking out on stage silently, clad in a simple hat and poncho, Joshua Ray sat beneath two spotlights with only a chair and microphone. Much like his stage set-up, Walker is not flashy. He’s there to get and keep your attention with his songs, which are simple, but still able to say so much with the words he chooses. His turquoise ring flashing on his hand as he strummed his guitar, Walker guided the crowd through his set, most of which came from his upcoming album, including the only single released so far, “Canyon”. I always love when artists choose covers that I never hear and Joshua Ray Walker’s set included one I’ve never heard played live, Hank Thompson’s 50’s country hit, “The Wild Side of Life”. Having heard an entire set by Joshua Ray Walker, I can say without hesitation that as soon as January 25th rolls around, I will be downloading his new record, Wish You Were, and I highly suggest anyone with an interest in country music with stellar songwriting do the same.
I came away from this show wanting BJ Barham to be my new best friend. I’m not sure I’m cool enough for that honor, but any artist that makes you feel like you want to get to know them on a more personal level is someone who is doing their job well. Barham is a storyteller, both through his songs and through his stories that he shares with crowds. I have never heard a funnier introduction to a song that BJ’s lead up to the song, “Crooked & Straight” about his experiences as a Southern Baptist adolescent and how it’s easier to kick, “cocaine and whiskey, than it is to kick Baby Jesus in the South.” Barham is also very candid about his struggles with alcohol and the fact he’s been sober for the last four years. It’s personal experiences like this, the way that Barham bares his soul within his songs that makes you want to sit down and really absorb the pain, redemption and wisdom that can come from his songwriting.
Covering shows at such a historic venue as Cain’s Ballroom, it’s not unusual for artists to mention how happy they are to play there or what a bucket list venue it is, but Barham’s take on Cain’s, was an endearing one. “This redneck kid from North Carolina started a band and said he was going to play this place one day.” And he has, many times, but he hasn’t just played in Tulsa, he also recorded American Aquarium’s 2018 album, Things Change, just down the block from the Cain’s at the Hanson Brother’s 3CG Studios. John Fullbright, a Tulsa music staple and Grammy nominated artist, was the producer for the album.
Clad in a green plaid shirt, with arms full of colorful tattoos, Barham and the rest of American Aquarium came out energized and launched right into the song, “The World is on Fire”, a commentary on his feelings after the 2016 presidential election, following it up with one of the most popular tracks off the newest album, “Tough Folks”. Barham has seven full length albums to pull from when making a setlist and he does a great job mixing old with new to give his fans a sampling from most of the albums. “Jacksonville”, “Wolves”, “St. Mary’s”, “Casualties”, “Hurricane” and “Burn. Flicker.Die” were all part of the 19 song set. American Aquarium isn’t just Barham, he’s out on the road this year with a brand new lineup, including Shane Boeker or lead guitar, bassist Ben Hussey, drummer Matty Alger and Adam Kurtz on pedal steel and electric guitar. Listening to these guys, you wouldn’t be able to tell that they haven’t been Barham’s regular band for the past 8 years, which is a credit to their fantastic musicianship.
Both Joshua Ray Walker and American Aquarium provided a night of real, honest music. I’d take that any night over pyrotechnics and elaborate stage design. If you’re in the South, you’re in luck if you’d like to see American Aquarium through the rest of the winter. Tour dates for both artists are below.
Joshua Ray Walker: http://www.joshuaraywalker.com/tour/
American Aquarium: http://www.americanaquarium.com/tour/