Friday, April 20, 2012

Show review: Willis Earl Beal at the Hideout, 4/19

By Andrew Hertzberg

(photo credit: John Yingling)
Not many musicians start their sets by reading poetry, and Bukowski at that. So if one thing’s for sure, Willis Earl Beal is not like many musicians. He is often tagged as an “outsider artist” (for as vague a term as that is) and aspires to be the black Tom Waits, in regards to the range between dissonant and experimental songs as well as creating beautiful ballads. A listen through Acousmatic Sorcery (currently streaming on the Reader’s website) yields both, an album featuring an out-of-tune toy piano, decomposing drums, raspy vocals, and single plucked guitar strings bathed in a healthy dose of no-fi production.

For the live show, Beal is the only one up there. Most of the music is pre-recorded and played on an old school reel-to-reel (or at least used as an aesthetic accompaniment). While his vocals on Acousmatic Sorcery are certainly the focus, his voice takes on a whole new power live. What’s most impressive is his dynamic range, transitioning seamlessly from an operatic vibrato to an eardrum puncturing scream. And while he wore sunglasses throughout most of the indoor set, he doesn’t come off as shy or “outsider” as the mythology has begun to describe him as. He’s clearly not looking to make conventional music, and is comfortable as a “fringe” artist, but I think this generation of music lovers disenchanted with conventional and recycled pop and rock songs want something different. That he recognizes his voice is good in a conventional way coupled with his still progressing musical talent makes the dichotomy that much more poignant.

While at times he theatrically paraded around the stage, robing himself in a cape, using his belt as a whip and falling to his knees in an exasperated collapse, he showed his sensitive side as well. He picked up a guitar to perform "Evening Kiss," and took up the piano near the end of the set, his back facing the audience leaving us to only stare at his muscular back sweating through his white shirt. The front of the shirt had a simple face with plus signs for eyes and the text “NOBODY.” While it seems like it’s mostly a logo he’s trying to brand himself with (the same logo was on the cape), the sold out Thursday night Hideout show certainly proved it’s not a label that can be applied to him.

The moods of the evening were quite varied as well. While the slower songs had a natural aura of gloom, they were delivered with the same passion as many of his more intense and raucous bits. Likewise, Beal could be silly at times, and you could tell he derives as much pleasure as artistic expression while on stage (a great reminder that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive). And in between songs he offered: “I wish I was fucking Rick Ross because he doesn’t have to be introspective and shit,” “I am not a musician. I am a motivational speaker,” and most importantly, “Don’t wait for nobody to discover you. Discover your goddamned self.” The set closed with Beal belting out another soulful tune, backed only by the handclaps of the audience, the sounds we created helpfully reverberated back to us by his microphone.

The venues he’s performed have been as varied as his songs. Besides the Hideout, he’s recently performed at Cole’s, the House of Blues, and used to perform at the Red Line Jackson subway stop. Next up he’s slated to play Friday, July 13th at the Pitchfork Music Festival. What originally started as bedroom recordings are being taken public in a very big way and his voice has the weight to carry him further. Don’t miss out.

Where Beal’s set focused on dynamics, power and performance, opening act Quarter Mile Thunder was pretty much just the opposite. The stripped down trio makes really quiet music, but managed to captivate the (mostly) silent and respectful room. Singer and acoustic guitarist Ben Clarke crooned with a sweet voice, both lamenting ("Wild Eyed") and appreciating ("Tell Me") loves. He was backed by a sparse piano and occasional atmospheric synth, and included a Townes Van Zandt cover in the set. I was reminded a bit of a Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Iron and Wine and less gypsy Bowerbirds. Their album Twist is full streaming on soundcloud. Hopefully there’ll be more to come.

For more photos from the evening, check out Robert Loerzel's post on his site, Underground Bee. 

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