Concert review: American Aquarium (with Hymn River Suite and Blackwater ’64) rock the twang at Cicero’s, Thursday, February 7

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Maybe it was the whiskey I wasn’t drinking messing with my head, but American Aquarium sounded too big for a room the size of Cicero’s.

When frontman BJ Barham introduced the Raleigh, N.C. band before playing “Katherine Belle,” all I could think was that it felt stadium-size huge despite the room not being particularly open. They were every bit as tight as on recording, but with an added oomph from the air vibrating around me.

A few hours prior, Alton, Ill.’s trio Hymn River Suite had started things out — two acoustic guitars and three voices melding together for a set of twangy country songs and covers — poking fun at themselves as they vied for the attention of the people chatting by the bar. “Grace, Peace, and Whiskey” stood out in their set, as well as the “totally hipster, pop-country cover” of Little Big Town’s “Boondocks” in all its foot-stomping glory.

Things got louder when Blackwater ’64 took the stage with their take on twangy rock. Pleading attempts to get people to move closer to the stage were somewhat effective, but chatter provided the backbeat for almost every song of the evening. The din proved annoying during quieter, slower songs — when the drummer and bassist took a break, the thrum of voices near the bar almost overshadowed Ben Martsolf’s crooning during “Westbound.”

American Aquarium’s set started off loudly and seamlessly — the transition between “Ain’t Going to the Bar Tonight” and “Saturday Nights” was so smooth that the crowd didn’t even get a chance to applaud. That proved to be a turning point in the set, after which almost every song received its own introduction, which ranged from Barham explaining that he’s a “terrible waiter and worse bartender” before “Casualties” to a rant about his ex before “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart.”

“It’s only been 5 years. I’m not bitter,” he explained, before singing over a weeping pedal-steel guitar; the tenderness of the first half of the song belied his venom.

After explaining they weren’t going to do the whole encore thing, the rockers played the title track off their latest record, “Burn.Flicker.Die.” Ending with a polite, “Y’all have a safe night,” the five men left the stage to mingle with the crowd.

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