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This Little Underground: BJ Barham & Kaleigh Baker

August 8, 2014
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This Little Underground is Orlando Weekly’s music column providing perspective, live reviews and news on the city’s music scene. Read the latest column here.

BJ Barham at Will's Pub (photo by James Dechert)

BJ Barham at Will’s Pub (photo by James Dechert)

North Carolina’s BJ Barham (Aug. 4, Will’s Pub) writes some excellent songs – some of today’s best barroom country-rock, in fact. And, with the full wingspan and arsenal of his band American Aquarium, he knows how to dress them up royally and just right. But his solo shows are a different kind of engagement altogether, and they’re concentrating in gravity and character.

What makes him evocative as a raconteur is that he wears his heart candidly on his sleeve and writes directly from his life. But the well from which he draws his ink has gotten deeper and more complex in recent years. Sometimes it’s to his misfortune (despair, addiction), sometimes it’s to his salvation (love) – but for the listener, it’s all compelling gold. And it’s only enriched his solo expression.

BJ Barham at Will's Pub (photo by James Dechert)

BJ Barham at Will’s Pub (photo by James Dechert)

A BJ Barham performance is like a Storytellers session, a generously narrated experience that ushers you into the very den of his heart. At the moment, he’s in the glow of new engagement so much of his set, despite the sizeable audience immediately before him, was pointed toward his fiancée who was minding both his wares and their dog at the merch booth. And that energy gave his raw country confessionals some added power and light.

But, of course, there are those songs that make the story worth delving into in the first place. And what’s making those already good songs even better is that his voice now reflects those emotional miles, adding a little Lucero heart into his sweet Whiskeytown twang.

BJ Barham at Will's Pub (photo by James Dechert)

BJ Barham at Will’s Pub (photo by James Dechert)

For a touring musician, Barham has put in years of hard work here and has woven his way into the fabric of this city’s music scene. There’s always something to be said for that. When you add up his talent, warmth and work ethic, you’ve got the kind of artist that builds more of a cult than an audience. And this was a sing-along crowd with an especially loud group toward the back. Trust me, I know most of the true believers in that particular chorus. If you got them, you did your work right.

Kaleigh Baker at Will's Pub (photo by James Dechert)

Kaleigh Baker at Will’s Pub (photo by James Dechert)

Speaking of both vocal conviction and devoted following, local star Kaleigh Baker opened. No matter how many times I see her, and it’s been a little while, I get knocked down by her singing. It’s a rare, gorgeous, dead-raising force capable of absolutely anything. The world at large doesn’t know it yet, but Baker’s brick-built voice is one of the greats. And because of that, there is nothing quite like seeing her solo. Not that any band in the world could overcome this Florida hurricane, but hearing her sing in such a nude, unfiltered state grips the soul like a throat.

Kaleigh Baker at Will's Pub (photo by James Dechert)

Kaleigh Baker at Will’s Pub (photo by James Dechert)

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