A Good Name for a Band

Like most Americans my age (and younger), I've often played the game of coming across an interesting or unusual combination of words and pretending it's the name of a band. It's a simple game that requires little effort beyond saying "That would be a good name for a band!" and it can be played literally anywhere--in the car (Soft Shoulder), at the candy store (Whack and Unwrap), or online (the Search Tools). Having been through the agonizing process of selecting a band name numerous times, it's a game I enjoy much more now that there's nothing at stake--in other words, I can afford to be amused by the name when I know I'm not really going to have to be known to the public as a member of Insatiable Sucking Desire. (Yes, this almost happened; we also considered Herd of Turtles and the Mudheels before settling on Terminal Mouse.)

But last night in Richmond, the issue of band names was brought home anew as Kelly and I headed to the National to catch a new favorite band of ours, Raleigh's own American Aquarium. Lead singer/songwriter BJ Barham describes the group as "five-piece Americana, fronted by giant asshole BJ Barham," and their own name is a tip of the hat to legendary Americana group Wilco, whose song "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" begins with the line "I am an American aquarium drinker." Many groups take names from the movies--Duran Duran from a character in Barbarella, Faster Pussycat from Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, They Might Be Giants from They Might Be Giants, etc.--but it's relatively rare to see one taking its name from a lyric, or at least we haven't been able to come up with any other good examples.

The reason we were thinking up examples, however, was because of a problem at the show, one which is easily identified and even more easily fixed. When we arrived at the door, one of the three opening bands was already playing... but we didn't know which one. They played at least three songs while we stood waiting for the next group to come on, uncertain whether the next group would be A.A. or another opener, and at no point in the between-song banter did the frontman mention the name of the group, or for that matter the name of the group that would follow. As they were not the headliners, there was no reason for the band to assume that the members of the audience knew anything at all about them--most people choose their live music experiences according to the main event--so the lack of information was particularly odd.

The next group came out and immediately announced to me (except, y'know, not out loud or anything) that they weren't quite used to this whole rock-and-roll thing. Partly this was due to the appearance of the acoustic guitarist, who had on an untucked off-white golf shirt with some company's logo on the breast and generally gave off the aura of a fraternity bro who'd gotten into Dave Matthews a year or two back and has been learning his way around the instrument... and hey, maybe he could get into a band thing while he's trying to make up his mind about business school. This quartet also made the peculiar choice of both opening and closing their set with covers of Tom Petty songs. They weren't bad performers, and their taste in cover tunes was actually pretty good, but their originals didn't really leave me interested in hearing more. And they, like the previous act, did not inform us who they were or mention any of the other groups taking the stage that night.

Kelly began seething. "I need a sign to hold up that says 'Say Your Band's Name.' Or maybe we could hang a banner at the back of the auditorium."

The third group, a trio, brought a welcome degree of professionalism to the night. Each member wore a vest (or in the frontman's case, a vest and suit jacket), providing a visual hook for the audience, and all three were obviously experienced musicians. Alas, though they thanked the previous two acts--the Atkinsons and the Good Birds--and the headliners, they did not mention their own name. Still, we were pretty happy with their contribution to the show. The lead singer played acoustic guitar, while the upright bass player and banjo/harmonica/tambourine player added backup vocals, and they turned out a set of about twelve original songs with strong melodies, varied and interesting arrangements, and quality instrumental and vocal performances. But no, they didn't tell us who they were... until the end of the final song, when the lead singer finally identified them as "James Justin & Co."

And that left the headliners, whom everyone had come to see. And the first words out of BJ Barham's mouth when he took the microphone were "We're American Aquarium from Raleigh, North Carolina."

Learn from this, opening bands. Learn from this.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 15, 2012 4:30 PM.

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