Sue Foley

Ben Ballinger
Carson McHone
Cactus Café
Austin, Texas

Musician Carson McHone opened for Ben Ballinger and each artist played their sets alone on acoustic guitars, and they joined together for one duet toward the end of the night.
While the audience members had been talking together and greeting one another loudly since the doors opened, everyone quieted when McHone came onto the stage. She had been on the road for the last month, but in her warm greeting to the crowd, she said that it was “quite a treat to be back home playing the Cactus with Ben.” Her voice was easygoing throughout her performance, both in singing her songs and in the commentary she offered in between. That softness matched her gentle acoustic sound, which she often swayed to with her eyes closed. The songs themselves came from both McHone’s 2015 Goodluck Man, and from her current work-in-progress, which she hinted would be released in October. McHone also elaborated on the stories of her new songs’ inspirations: “Hawks Don’t Share” drew from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s marriage to Zelda Fitzgerald, and she pointed to Langston Hughes’s “Suicide’s Note” as inspiration for “Wake You Well.” When she left the stage, the audience cheered heartily; it seemed that as many attended for her performance as for Ballinger’s.

Ben Ballinger began his set after checking his strings and sipping at his beer. He came flying out of the gate with the disillusioned “Confessions in Flannel,” which questioned the church, musicians, and “wars with patriotic names.” But, through the rest of his ten selected songs, Ballinger slowed to become a little more meditative, a little more “idealistic.” He used that word to describe about four different songs, and each time gaining a little more laughter. The music, regardless how Ballinger described it, remained stripped-down with just a guitar (and a harmonica, briefly), and the lyrics were often heartfelt: in “Living the Dream,” he sang, “It’s quite a thing to fly”; with “Keeper of the Key,” he paid mournful tribute to the late musician Mitchell Vandenberg. For his final song, having returning to the stage at the audience’s request, Ballinger opted for brash, stomping music: he urged, “Stick it to the man, Stan, stick it to the man!”

But only one song offered both McHone’s gentleness and Ballinger’s meditation: their duet, “Flower Girl.” The lyrics told of an odd couple who promise to love one another and who envision a lovely life together. While the song appeared whimsical, the musicians both leaned into the microphone to sing the earnest chorus: “If you’ll be my flower girl, I will be your breakfast boy, with your purse full of petunias and my wallet full of waffles.” McHone stepped away when Ballinger sang through the verses, but they were face-to-face to for “flower girl” and “breakfast boy.” Together, the two musicians gave the crowd a silly-sounding love song which possessed great sincerity, and was sung and strummed at a calming pace.

by Kevin LaTorre