Wisconsin Flannel Mysticism
Justin Vernon isn’t the only Wisconsin songwriter who vanished into a northwoods cabin and emerged with an album full of songs. So did Viroqua native Simon Balto. In 2013 Balto released The Roads That Make Men Weary. Like Vernon’s music, the songs on Roads are lean, simple melodies. But unlike Vernon, whose lyrics are largely metaphorical, Balto weaves a different flannel mysticism. He tells stories with heart crushing detail.
Sandwiched between two acts on this frigid night Balto cast a 10-song spell on the High Noon audience. He kicked off his set with “Foothills,” a song that began with a spray of electronica, a mash of sampled effects. It was a sonic misdirect before he lit his acoustic campfire.
In his gray t-shirt, faded jeans and spectacles, Balto looks like a scruffy accountant with a guitar. His modest appearance is in line with the earnestness of his music. He played his 55-year old six-string with an ardent finger style. His voice was butter and honey.
And he’s as clever with words as he is illustrative. Like Todd Snider if Snider didn’t tell jokes. A new song, “Disappearing Acts” came to Balto in a bar conversation with a couple who were once together, then spent several decades apart, then came back together. There were many themes in this one: strong winds of fate and fortune as well as an urgent reminder throughout that a life can sink into corners. That a life can sink into moments.
Balto’s High Noon audience of around 100 listened as though they were in church, wrapped warm by the performance and out-of-the-frozen Wisconsin night. What would be an alt-folk singer without a harmonica? Balto’s harmonica lead-in to “The Ballad of Robert Frost” takes the song straight down the quiet side of Springsteen’s E-Street. The character Robert Frost is not the late American poet. He’s a teenaged husband, a mill worker, a Midwestern mess whose guitar is his only redemption. The emotive harmonica breaks in this number asked the audience to consider Frost’s sad trajectory. Misstep by misstep.
Bringing musical and lyrical detail together is pure magic. Balto knows how to do it. “Frost” was followed by what he says is the companion piece, “Willows and Songbirds” in which Balto relates the same story from the teen bride’s point of view. He said he hadn’t played this one in a year. Maybe that accounted for how seriously, how respectfully he performed it.
Of the whole program, only “Dying Days” didn’t pull its weight. Too long for its own good. But even this one kept the audience in their seats and away from the bar—no small feat in the Badger State. Elsewhere Balto showcased his masterful string musicianship on his resophonic guitar. That’s where he sang “Magdalene” with a sturdy Warren Zevon-like voice, patiently placing his steel on the strings just behind the vocal note on each chord change.
In April he’ll take his new songs to a studio in Minnesota. Balto himself, like a character in one of his songs, will soon depart Wisconsin for new opportunities in Indiana. He’ll leave behind a deep impression on the alt-folk music scene in Wisconsin.