SBTRKT. Willis Earl Beal. Fox Theatre. 04.10.12

London musician/producer Aaron Jerome brought his masked alter-ego SBTRKT to Boulder last night.  Along with his partner in crime, lyricist Sampha, SBRTKT did exactly what you would expect him to do — he turned the nearly sold-out Fox Theatre into a sweltering dance party resembling the UK garage scene that help spawn this brand of electronic music.  Running the gamut of subgenres, including (but not limited to) dubstep, future garage, house and techo, SBTRKT could easily be drown out by the thousands of subpar projects riding this new wave of EDM if it weren’t for the unique vocal stylings of Sampha and other guests such as Yukimi Nagano and Jessie Ware.  Unfortunately, the only female presence to grace the stage last night was the occasional dancer, but SBTRKT and Sampha more than made up for the recorded samples with their live performance.

Just two half-masked men, some equipment, a drum kit, a mic and a bare backdrop in which to project the consonants that make the name, SBTRKT are more about feeling than presentation.  Essentially, nothing more than larger than life shadows hunched over mixboards conducting a sea of revelers ready to move on command.  “Hold On”, “Trials Of The Past”, “Something Goes Right” and “Living Like I Do” were all highlights, while the Drake remix of “Wildfire” felt a little forced with the lack of either Drake or Yukimi Nagano on the stage, but it was “Never Never” that took the set to another level — the teeth jarring bass reverberating to the very back of the venue and out into the streets of Boulder.

I saw SBTRKT a few weeks ago at a daytime set at SXSW and I thought they were ok.  The set at the Fox Theatre was much better due to lighting and the right atmosphere for this type of music.  That being said, I think Sampha is the real talent of the team.  Sure, he sounds a lot like James Blake, but when he is onstage he is his own person, and the purely instrumental tracks prove to be lacking substance without him.

But the real star of the night came before SBTRKT even took the stage.  Willis Earl Beal had the crowd clapping their hands, stomping their feet, and wondering where the hell this guy came from!

Sauntering through the crowd with sunglasses on and cocktail in hand, Willis Earl Beal was in no hurry to start his set, despite the clicking of flashlights beckoning him to the stage, but once he positioned himself behind the mic and in front of his reel-to-reel tape device, there was no doubt we were in for a show.

I’m Willis Earl Beal, I’m with you for 8 songs…gonna try to thump through this without making an ass of myself

Without taking the sunglasses off, or putting the cocktail down, Beal busted into an acapella version of “Wavering Lines” — immediately silencing the growing crowd, while they migrated from all sides to claim a spot closer to the stage.  With a voice so crisp, so powerful and so unique, it was hard to believe this was the same man who released the extremely lo-fi Acousmatic Sorcery.   It was even harder to believe that tracks like “Cosmic Queries”, “Swing On Low” and “Away My Silent Lover” could sound so damn good (and original) in a live setting, when on the album they sound like someone in a basement with a shitty tape recorder  trying to find his way by imitating his idols.

For someone so new to the stage, Beal demonstrates an insane amount of confidence, at one point commenting on the thin air that affects so many who travel through Colorado, ‘they told me high altitude would fuck with my voice, but I feel good!‘  Pausing in between songs only long enough to stop, start or rewind his tape, Beal was in a constant state of movement, whether is was standing on top of various objects, holding the mic stand high above his head, or leaning over the audience to emphasize a point, he never turned off the ‘entertainer’ for a second.  The only negative was when he kept fidgeting with a sheet he had drawn on, I’m still not sure what the point of that was.

“Evening’s Kiss” might be his best known song, and for that he took a seat and pulled out a guitar.  Once again, the live version sounded so much better than the recording.  While it was a treat for those of us in attendance, it is a shame that his album doesn’t reflect his talent.

After his 40 minute set, Willis Earl Beal bid us farewell with a plug for his merch booth ‘my CDs are for sale in the back, think of it as my collection plate..it will save your soul…they got me out here prostituting myself…buy my CD‘  It was comments like these, along with some of the rants in a few songs, and the whole sheet thing, that had me wondering what he is so angry about.  It also made me think he’s still got a ways to go before he figures out what type of artist he wants to be.  But all that aside, this was a performance I will not soon forget — a performance by an artist who seems out-of-place and out-of-time, not just at a SBTRKT show, but in the world of music today.  And to me, that’s something worth talking about.

Willis Earl Beal:
Wavering Lines
Don’t Leave Me Hanging
Sambo Joe From The Rainbow
Cosmic Queries
Swing On Low
Away My Silent Lover
Evening’s Kiss
Same Old Tears

SBTRKT: (this might not be 100% correct)
Go Bang
Hold On
Living Like I Do
Something Goes Right
Heatwave
Ready Set Loop
Trials Of The Past
Pharaohs
Step in Shadows
Wildfire (Remix ft. Drake)
Never Never