Written by Jane Ponte
Several weeks ago, I was contacted by Ben Balmer’s publicist, who asked if I would be interested in reviewing his latest album and seeing him perform at an upcoming gig at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston. I’d heard a song or two of Balmer’s previously, and I liked what I heard. Admittedly, I was not completely familiar with Balmer’s material, although he and I are Facebook friends. I’d seen his posts, heard about his projects, and liked what he had shared over that platform. What I did not realize was just how multi-talented, engaging, and just plain talented he is. I quickly realized this at Friday night’s show.
Accompanied by his supremely talented and versatile band, Balmer took the stage around 9:30, and, after thanking the crowd for coming, launched into “Evil Eyes,” the first song on his new release, Honky-Tonk Macbeth. Balmer, who produced the album along with Justin Douglas, released the 11-song masterpiece in October of this year, and it has grown to be a favorite of mine in the short time that it has been out. Hearing him perform most of the tunes on the new release was definitely a treat—and realizing how versatile and nuanced of a songwriter, performer, and guitar/harmonica player he is was a nice surprise as well—one that has stayed with me for the few days that have passed since that gig.
Consequently, I have been delving into Balmer’s work, and while I have enjoyed all of it, I cannot say enough good things about Honky-Tonk Macbeth. It is difficult for me to pigeonhole this gifted artist, and I think that’s the way he’d want it, really. This album oozes with coolness. Balmer is a superb lyricist and one heck of a storyteller, and the players on this record are equally as gifted, moving effortlessly from one musical genre into another.
Balmer is a master at creating story-songs that take his listeners on epic musical journeys. Compelling and thoughtful, Balmer often spins yarns that take place in other countries, some during bygone eras. Such is the case in “The Runner,” which Balmer flawlessly performed for his rapt audience on Friday. Fast-paced and exciting, Balmer and his band took us on a musical journey set in medieval Scotland that told a story about a forbidden relationship and the 2 women who fought to remain together. The song, which contains elements of country, bluegrass, and rock, was a highlight of the evening. Equally captivating were Balmer’s performances of musical gems including the jazz-infused “Purple with Pockets,” country rocker “Married to the Road,” and the title track, “Honky-Tonk Macbeth,” which is also one of my favorite songs on the album. Summarizing the Shakespearean tragedy in a swaying, bluesy style with some killer lines, including “Maybe we all go back to Scotland when we die,” suggests that nearly anything is possible in Balmer’s world.
This premise is certainly true within the entirety of the album, which is arguably Balmer’s best work to date. There just isn’t a bad song in the bunch. It contains elements of country rock, bluegrass, blues, syncopated jazz, and Cajun twists, among other influences. Balmer’s harmonica playing, however, is probably the highlight of the album for me, and I sat spellbound on Friday as he showcased his remarkable display of proficiency on the instrument. He did not disappoint, and backed by Tony Perez on fiddle, Aaron Parks on drums, and Josh Flowers on standup bass, the evening passed much too quickly for me. I easily could have listened to Balmer play his entire catalogue of tunes and never grown tired of any of it. But the songs from this new album were by far the pinnacle of the evening for me. From start to finish, Balmer had his audience in the palm of his hand. And hearing Honky-Tonk Macbeth nearly in its entirety only served to solidify Balmer as a consummate performer of the highest caliber. I am already looking forward to what comes next from this talented songwriter and look forward to his next trip to Houston. Until then, do yourself a favor and check out Balmer’s Honky-Tonk Macbeth. You’ll be glad you did, and you can thank me later.