Backstage Pass: Folk, farms and a friend

Thursday, March 22, 2018 - 10:29am

Ben Balmer

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Courtesy of Ben Balmer

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I called my friend from home on my way to The Ark for encouragement and to pass the time. I told him of the current situation: I was walking to meet up with a stranger to attend a benefit indie-folk concert. He laughed at the fact that I was nervous in the first place, and he told me all would be fine as long as I was myself. I neared Main Street and had to say goodbye to my friend’s supportive words in order to begin my unexpected evening.

The headliner for the night was Ben Balmer, a indie folk-rock singer who’s traveled the world, and his band, who returned to Balmer’s Ann Arbor roots for the benefit concert “A Time to Plant.” Proceeds were donated to the scholarship fund for Dawn Farm, a unique local farm that offers different services of “long-term treatment to men and women who suffer from addictions,” as stated in the show’s program. Along with Balmer and his band, the show featured a plethora of other artists from across the country, like Peter Madcat Ruth, Jaimee Harris and Heidi Burson. Highlights from the night included Chris Buhalis, a singer/songwriter from Detroit, and Abigail Stauffer, a folk singer and a “special Dawn Farm pal.”

Although I was given little information about the stranger for the night, I was at least given his name. I decided not to look Robby up prior to the visit, adding to the mystery and leaving out the expectations. I was worried what he would think of coming all the way downtown to see a concert with a random person who would be writing an article about it. What if we didn’t like the music? What if he didn’t like me? Or worse, what if we just didn’t like each other?

But Robby, a sophomore in the School of Engineering, a person with a welcoming, warm smile that wiped away my unnecessary worries, arrived at The Ark with an open mind and a positive attitude. Phew. The awkward part was over.

Robby and I took our seats in the back while the rest of the audience filled up the tight space of the venue. I looked at him and then observed the scene: Among the grey-haired crowd, we were most likely the youngest people there. Arriving 10 minutes before the show began, we were lucky to have a friendly conversation about our (surprisingly many) common interests of music, hiking and similar travel destinations.

Ben Balmer and his band took to the stage and opened with “a song that everybody knows” –– a lovely rendition of “Happy Birthday” for the development director, Olivia Vigiletti. The band consisted of eccentric and individualistic characters: Ben Balmer on guitar and vocals, Josh Flowers on bass, Eddie Dickerson on violin and Aaron Parks on drums. Their differing talents but collective vibe absorbed the audience’s attention.

The Texas band’s hair-raising harmonies matched their intimate lyrics about life on the road, lovely details of a lady and the emotional challenges of addiction. The other artists throughout the night made their way on and off the stage, performing solo songs and accompaniments with Balmer’s band. While music filled my ears, thoughts continued to travel through my mind. Thoughts of worry and curiosity lingered from the initial nervousness, distracting me at times from the performance. I was hoping I didn’t smell bad and that he was having fun and that our connection wasn’t artificial. But, as if I was at any other performance, I tried to let the evening take me by the hand, unannounced and leaving me on the edge of my seat.

Plucking, playing, bouncing and smiling, Dickerson’s intense liveliness enthused Robby and me. Giggling back and forth throughout the night, joking about the violinist’s wild and unfathomable energy and commenting on the impressive talent of all the artists, Robby became less of a stranger as the night progressed.

I went home that night and played Ben Balmer from my back pocket as I brushed my teeth. I questioned what the night would have been like if I had gone to The Ark alone or if my guest was someone other than Robby. I wondered if I’d ever see a concert with Robby again, or if I’d ever see him again, period. Regardless, it’s nights like this one where I was thankful to have a sweet guest with me –– one who saw the importance of two people being entertained for the sake of art, for the sake of a human connection.