“I’m Getting Too Old for This….” – A new recurring series of posts (or paragraphs) about live shows I attend (I promise not all will be this involved)
Willis Earl Beal @ the Hideout, April 19th, 2012
Trying to “categorize” the Chicago artist Willis Earl Beal in conventional music labels is an undeniable challenge (and perhaps impossible as he chooses to eschew labels). By his own admission on Thursday night, he is not a “musician” but a motivational speaker with musical inclinations. Perhaps you are chuckling at that self-definition. I certainly did. But, there is a kernel of truth in what he said because he is definitely a performer in the truest sense of the word: an insanely talented vocalist who is mesmerizing, unpredictable, confident, self-focused, and seemingly constantly creating (himself?) on stage.
Leaning against the walls of the full-to-capacity Hideout, nestled along the North Side of Chicago’s Industrial Corridor that follows the Chicago River, I stood a bit (physically) under-the-weather but unwilling to heed to my body’s requests for respite for “fear” of missing a rare opportunity to see a raw and still-developing artist. Wiles Earl Beal (or WEB) emerges on the small stage wearing Ray-Ban Wayfarers and a black leather jacket covering a simple white T-shirt that contains a self-designed cartoon-like face and the word “Nobody” written underneath – looking like a cross between the teen ennui-ridden Rebel Without a Cause-era James Dean and the relaxed, ease of Newman’s (Cool Hand) Luke – perhaps no coincidence, as he references Luke in the novel, Principles of a Protagonist (A Novel Actually About Something), that comes with his debut album. With the greatest of ease, he spies the crowd through darkened glasses and begins his performance with a poem by Charles Bukowski. He starts the musical component of the set by turning round and removing a white sheet (containing the same illustration and wording on his shirt) and revealing a reel-to-reel that clicks on and elicits the backing music to his first number – a searing bluesy-soul number. If this sounds like something out of a David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch film or a performance art piece somewhere in Alphabet City or any other artist avant-garde enclave across the country, then you are starting to get the picture. Through the remainder of the set, he moves between the reel-to-reel, an electric guitar, and a piano, which he plays with back turned to the crowd, all the while building a casual and knowing rapport with the audience. By performance’s end, he has taken us on a unique lyrical and musical journey unlike what one you usually witnesses in a “traditional set” – part spoken-word performance art piece, part bare-bones folk-blues show, all a creation of Willis’ own making.
Despite the difficulty I had in taking my eyes of Willis, I am left wondering what exactly I saw. Not in a negative sense, rather, I’m left still pondering what this artist is trying to do and where he is trying go. And, in that way, I was actually very excited because takes creative and imaginative risks like many of the artists I tend to respect and follow. Not only that, he also brings such a bodily presence and physical energy to the performance, requiring an audience to really invest in and be present during his work, in other words stop tweeting while sipping your PBR tall-boys and pay attention. It’s like the feeling you have when you see a classical concert for a piece you’ve heard countless times on a recording – nothing ever gets close to the immediacy and impact of live musicians and their instruments. Nothing gets close to the awe-some power of a gifted performer transforming the stage before you. (Note: In a P’Fork interview (link below), WEB states that he wants to be the black Tom Waits and, for those familiar with Tom Waits, especially his fabulous Nighthawks at the Diner, which is itself a musical-performance art piece of sorts – a throw-back lounge act meets poetry reading, there are a lot similarities.)
If you have the opportunity to see Willis live in his nascent career (note: he will be playing the Pitchfork Music Festival), go see him because it’s likely you won’t see anyone or anything quite like him. I will tell you, don’t try (as I did) to understand what is happening, just let him do his thing and enjoy.
If you want a preview of Willis’ music check out his debut album Acousmatic Sorcery here (via Spotify). I will admit, it is a raw and über-lo-fi record played entirely by WEB and is by no means a perfect debut, but it does contain the seed of a creative genius I’m still trying (and eager) to grasp.
For additional information about Willis Earl Beal’s unique and interesting story go to :
the Reader Article written awhile back (here),
the P’Fork Expose (here), and/or
his website www.williesearlbeal.com
a drawing from Willis’ novel Principles of a Protagonist