American Aquarium will play Raleigh twice in 2017, which is twice as often as usual.
To be clear, Raleigh is their home, which is a point of pride for this alt-country band. Yet American Aquarium spends a good chunk of the year on the road, rarely playing any city more than once annually.
There’s usually one big hometown weekend at the end of January, the annual “Road Trip to Raleigh” in which American Aquarium headlines two consecutive nights at the Lincoln Theatre. These are special shows, bandleader BJ Barham says, and he loves seeing fans he’s met all over the nation travel to Raleigh to see his band in its natural habitat. To keep these shows special, he typically declines to play additional hometown dates.
“It’s like going to a favorite restaurant on your anniversary,” Barham says. True to his nature as a songwriter, he’s the master of the off-the-cuff analogy. “If you ate there every single day, the food wouldn’t mean anything to you. If you have it once a year, you build this nostalgia up. You build this expectation, you look forward to it.”
Yet this weekend sees a rare live show in Raleigh when American Aquarium headlines the third annual Groove in the Garden Oct. 21 – an outdoor festival at the Raleigh Rose Garden with a dozen bands slated to play from 1 to 9 p.m.
The lineup ranges from American Aquarium’s sincere country-rock to Boom Unit Brass Band’s bombastic, horn-driven funk to Toubab Krewe’s West Africa-flavored jam-fusion to Dark Water Rising’s rootsy, soulful rock. Hank, Pattie & the Current, who just played multiple shows at the IBMA World of Bluegrass, also is on the lineup.
A portion of the proceeds benefit Girls Rock NC, the local chapter of a nonprofit that works to instill confidence, power and creative expression to girls, women and gender-nonconforming people.
Barham found he couldn’t say no to Groove in the Garden – from the opportunity to play a sweet outdoor venue in the fall to the fact that the fest raises money for Girls Rock.
“The fact that (Girls Rock is) empowering the young women of North Carolina to go out there and take over, that’s pretty incredible,” he says. “That only lets us get behind the show even more.”
Helping girls grow
Girls Rock NC, founded 14 years ago, is the third-oldest Girls Rock chapter in the country and the fourth-oldest in the world, says Mary Alta, director of programs, outreach and development at Girls Rock NC. Today, she said, there are more than 160 Girls Rock organizations worldwide. The nonprofit was founded with the mission to encourage girls, women and trans people to make their voices heard, Alta said, but its work has broadened to address issues facing other communities who might feel marginalized.
“It’s really feeling in 2017 like our work is that much more urgent and impactful as rights and liberties and freedoms are actively being taken from women and trans and gender-nonconforming people and people of color in the U.S.,” she says.
Alta understands Girls Rock NC’s power firsthand. When she started as a volunteer in 2014, she didn’t consider herself a musician. She took piano lessons as a kid and guitar lessons in high school, but neither stuck. Her guitar teacher’s attitude turned her off from the instrument.
“I remember having this guy instructor who would only talk about classic rock and bands he’d been in,” Alta says. “I was completely uninterested and thought that meant I wouldn’t like guitar, and so I quit.”
She loved music, but most of the women musicians she could think of were pop stars and singers. By the time she volunteered at Girls Rock, Alta acknowledges she knew just a few guitar chords and barely knew how to turn on an amp. Yet soon she was in a room with four Girls Rock participants who had never met. Working with them inspired her to go home and pick up her mom’s old acoustic and learn to play. Unlike women who played music before volunteering at Girls Rock, Alta now plays because of her volunteer work with Girls Rock.
“The band that I play in with my friends (that is) called Space Holder, we intentionally only book shows with people we want to be playing with, and with always, I think, other women and femme musicians,” she says. “I don’t think I would be playing any kind of music if I hadn’t worked with those young people.”
‘A positive moment’
At Groove in the Garden, Alta will introduce Dark Water Rising. From that band’s inception a decade ago in rural Robeson County, Dark Water Rising has always been a female-fronted outfit. Members Charly Lowry and Emily Musolino, both of whom sing and play guitar, have participated in several Girls Rock events, drummer Aaron Locklear said.
“We’re very familiar with the program. We were excited and happy that they stepped in,” Locklear says. “It seems to be a very positive movement.”
As a working musician, Locklear is looking forward to the festival environment at Groove in the Garden. The band regularly travels to play shows every Thursday through Sunday. While they aren’t on the road for consecutive weeks or months at a time like American Aquarium, Dark Water Rising still keeps a full calendar. Festivals fill a necessary niche, Locklear says, and allow professional musicians like him to network.
“It’s one of the only times that bands really get to interact with other musicians and really go watch their sets,” he says. “It’s a great place to mingle with other bands and musicians and play with each other.”
Just a few weeks ago, in fact, Dark Water Rising played what Locklear feels may have been the band’s strongest set at Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival in rural Chatham County. Now he feels a similar level of excitement ahead of Groove in the Garden.
“We’re still on the grind and trying to make a name for ourselves,” Locklear continues. “This is an honor for us. For bands at our level, it’s a big deal.”
What: Groove in the Garden
Where: Stephenson Amphitheater and The Raleigh Rose Garden at Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh
When: Oct 21. Gates open at noon. Shows are 1 to 9 p.m.
Cost: $20 in advance, $25 at the gate (there are also VIP ticket options). Kids 5 and under are free. Food trucks will be on site.
Main stage: American Aquarium, Toubab Krewe, Bombadil, Lonnie Walker, Rebekah Todd and The Odyssey, Dark Water Rising, Hank, Pattie & The Current, and Ghostt Bllonde
Garden stage: Boom Unit Brass Band, Kate Rhudy, Sinners & Saints and Curtis Eller
American Aquarium is a road-tested alt-country force. Don’t be surprised with how many audience members know every song. That’s just what a Raleigh American Aquarium show is like. After this show, the band is taking all of November and December off from touring to record its seventh album, “Things Change,” in Tulsa, Okla. Frontman BJ Barham expects this record to be out by next May or June.
Headliners Boom Unit Brass Band are a fierce and nasty horn-driven funk outfit. Other Groove in the Garden acts include various flavors of Americana (Sinners & Saints, Bombadil), garage-rockers Ghostt Bllonde and the eccentrically anachronistic Curtis Eller. Chapel Hill-via-Pembroke soulful roots-rockers Dark Water Rising, who are working on their third record and with a release planned for late 2017 or early 2018, plan on bringing several guest musicians along for their Groove in the Garden set.
Groove in the Garden benefits Girls Rock NC, a nonprofit that instills confidence in girls, women and gender-nonconforming people through the power of rock and roll. Girls Rock’s plans include expanding its programming throughout the year, while a perennial goal is for the organization to secure a permanent space. Aside from monetary gifts, Girls Rock accepts donations of guitars, amps, drums, keyboards and PA equipment in decent working order. Soon the organization will start recording technology and electronic music programs, so it is also now accepting donations of synthesizers and effects pedals.