Sons of Bill, American Aquarium
The Windjammer
Jan. 1

They may have been hung over from New Years Eve, but Sons of Bill fans were hungry for some bad-ass rock ‘n’ roll at the Windjammer, and damned if they didn’t get what they wanted.

With their old friends and touring buddies American Aquarium opening things up, the night showcased two of the most exciting bands in the Southeast doing what they do best: kicking ass and leaving crowds beaten down and happy about it.

Raleigh-based American Aquarium, led by BJ Barham’s often caustic lyrics and aggressive singing, sit solidly in the recent Southern rock tradition of Drive-By Truckers and Lucero, but there is an extra heft all their own, a strength gathered from years of nonstop touring and companionship, not to mention Whit Wright’s driving pedal steel. The powerful “Hurricane” off their latest album, Small Town Hymns, led into their capper, the personal but universal, “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart,” which had fans screaming along.

Soon into their set, Sons of Bill showed they know how to work a room into a frenzy, with Abe Wilson’s organ playing floating effortlessly above and around Sam Wilson’s monster extended solos and the pulsing rhythm section of Seth Green and Todd Wellons. After early favorites “Far Cry” and “Whispering,” the already sweat-soaked James Wilson had to switch guitars, prompting Sam to quip, “Ladies and gentleman, he sweats so much he breaks guitars, give it up for my brother James!” Sweat has become a theme at Sons shows, almost a marker of how much raw energy they bring to fans.

After the great new “Siren Song,” which will be on their much-anticipated third album, James tried to reign it in with the sad, slow ballad “My Hometown.” While it did get everyone swaying, the riled-up crowd couldn’t help belting out the lyrics as if they were their own. But the early high point came when Wellons, Green, and Sam Wilson beat “Never Saw It Coming” like a wet rag, refusing to allow the audience the chance to catch their breath. It was one of several moments in the show where their passion was ear-splittingly obvious. They were pouring their hearts into the performance, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

The powerful one-two punch of “Joey’s Arm” and “The Rain” off 2009’s One Town Away had the crowd dripping sweat too, leading into Sam singing Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” another in a long line of offbeat, fantastic covers. And the new fan favorite, Abe’s haunting “Santa Ana Winds,” left the crowd dizzy and spent, with just enough in the tank to deliriously croon along with James on “Charleston” and go into the now-staple “Sons-of-Bill!” chant.

James dedicated their encore of the classic boogie “Roll on Jordan” to the staff at the Windjammer, “one of our favorite places to play in the country.” And as Sam hit those clanging opening notes of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” James said, “Last time I was here I saw a great Tom Petty cover band, and I didn’t want to be outdone!” Judging from the exhausted crowd’s reaction, he doesn’t have anything to worry about. —Jared Booth