Toothpick in mouth, chamomile tea in hand (a box of which was a gift from me), Chicago’s Willis Earl Beal took to the Biltmore Cabaret stage alone, clutching two books: The Little Book of Zen and a Bukowksi poetry collection. He read from Zen then chucked it over his head.
He read “The Harder You Try” from Chuck and we chuckled over the line “just being able to scratch yourself and be nonchalant is victory”. He welcomed us to the “Church of Willis Earl Beal”. He’s starting calling his gigs that, he said, because he’s a raging “egomaniac.”
Then he took hold of a whiskey and took off into the microphone.
“I’VE GOT A BONE BLEACHED STICK WITH TERMITE HOLES…” came this old-timey soul belter of a voice and the club went absolutely silent (until the drunkards arrived stage right).
His mouth opened wide during “Wavering Lines” and he spilled the drink in his hand. When he was done, I kid you not, the room collectively exhaled, and people shook their heads. The voice had been that powerful.
But this is the thing; Beal isn’t just a soul singer. Not in the smooth Gaye way. Not in the Northern Soul Mayfield way. Not in the theatrical Little Richards way. Not just in the great godly gospel way (though there’s more of this here than anything).
There’s something otherworldly going on here. Wearing his kinda-now-typical skull shirt, shades and, inexplicably, an oversized leather winter glove on his right hand – Beal is quirky. He’s a portrait artist – used to be obsessed with drawing Sarah Michelle Gellar – and if you write to him, he will send you a drawing. It used to also be that you could call him and he’d sing you a song. Today, his voicemail is apologetic: he has had too many calls, but he still loves us. The phone songs are on hold, as it were.
He’s written a small chapbook, called the Principles of a Protagonist, that comes photocopied inside his vinyl and CDs. It is a fascinating tale of how anyone can achieve anything. Case in point.
Live, he picks at his flat guitar on his lap – “how do you play this thing?” he asks tonight, and he’s not kidding. He’s recorded his debut on “bad equipment. I like it this way, I hope you do too”. His back up band is a reel-to-reel.
His cloak is NOBODY – his drawing of an eerie xxxxs-for-eyes happy face. He stands on a chair and belts. He uses his belt on a chair.
“Cosmic Queries” sounds eerie and thick in the dry ice tonight. “White Noise” is about “redemption.” “Sambo Joe and the Rainbow” is immense. It’s larger than the room and possibly most of East Vancouver.
“He’s heard of me?” asks Beal later. “He likes my stuff?”
He doesn’t know who Lou Barlow is, “I don’t know many people,” he says, and you believe him because anybody who spents more time in libraries instead of Facebook can be trusted. When I tell him Barlow’s a fan, the man standing next to Beal nods reverently. “I’m a fan of Barlow’s,” that man says. “That’s high praise.” I tell Beal I will send him some Barlow. They are kinda brothers in music, in a way.
This isn’t just a charismatic young man relying on the voice and well-timed showbiz jiggery pokery (the aesthetics of the reel-to-reel, the belt and blanket) on stage. There’s vulnerability in among the tape hiss and bad equipment on his album. “Evening’s Kiss” is simply so beautiful. In “Always My Lover,” he cries. ACTUALLY cries. On stage, he’s exhausted. He’s played for just over an hour and is spent. “Why these shows have to be so goddamn long?,” he jokes. It’s kind of been visceral.
Acousmatic Sorcery, his debut, is a weird thing. It’s got a bit of a voodoo, some absolutely stunning moments, and some strange plinking noises. Most people who now see Beal live, come away loving him. They might not love the album, though. And Beal wants you to know that. “This isn’t like that was,” he says to me, nodding at the vinyl I’m holding and gesturing towards the stage. “Oh, I know. It’s awkward,” I say. “And that’s what I like.” He puts down his Sharpie – there’s a queue wanting to meet him – and shakes my hand.
And the tea? Oh, I knew about the tea from the time he plastered Chicago in 2009 with flyers. It had a drawing of himself, some words and was advertising for a soulmate. He said he liked “oatmeal, trainstations, nighttime and chamomile tea”. “Did you see, I had the tea!” he said to me, after. I saw.
Whatever this strange Beal is, he’s also a fully-fledged superstar. You just don’t know it yet.
There’s a line in that Bukowski poem, “If there is a light, it will find you.” Lordy, it has found Beal. \m/