Willis Earl Beal. The Walnut Room. 05.19.15
Willis Earl Beal lost me somewhere on the road to becoming nobody. The artist who showed so much promise when I saw him open for SBTRKT at the Fox Theatre decided that the road to commercial success was not one he felt comfortable on. The man who claimed he wanted to be like “the black Tom Waits” garnered quite a bit of attention in early 2012, when he went from singing songs to anyone who would call him, to racking up hundreds of thousands of hits on various youtube videos. The stomping, clapping, street-singer had all the right attributes to be the next big thing. He had the style, the quirkiness, the attitude, and most importantly, the voice. He also had the full support of fans and critics alike. Watching those acapella performances a few years later makes me wonder what happened to that guy. He was always eccentric as hell, and I’m not sure I ever understood his life philosophy, but the music was so damn good. Go back and watch Same Old Tears and Evening’s Kiss yourself. Tell me they don’t just kill you. Unfortunately, that was as good as it was going to get. Willis Earl Beal is an extremely talented musician, but that isn’t enough for him. He has to be many other things as well. And sometimes he has to be all of those things at once. He has to be a performance artist. He has to be a philosopher. He has to be an antagonist. He has to be a preacher. He has to be nobody. And despite his best efforts, all of those things just mask the incredible music behind them.
When I think back on that SBTRKT show in 2012, I only remember Willis Earl Beal. He walked through the crowd with a drink in his hand and sunglasses on his face like he owned the place. I think my notes on that show bear repeating here…
“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.
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…
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 he 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.
“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…
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…’ It was comments like those, along with some of the rants in a few songs and the whole sheet thing, that had me wondering what he was 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, it 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.”
Willis Earl Beal went from busking his way through train stations to being signed to XL Recordings and playing choice slots at major music festivals in a blink of an eye, so I can understand why someone of his artistic temperament might rebel against becoming another product to be strutted out and sold to the highest bidder. But it’s just a matter of finding the right path. There are ways of making a living making music while retaining artistic integrity. His idols, Nick Cave and Tom Waits, found that path. Willis Earl Beal couldn’t do it though. After the release of (the incredibly shitty sounding) Acousmatic Sorcery and the much more mainstream, but extremely subdued, Nobody Knows., Beal decided to leave XL and put out his next album by himself.
I’ll admit I never listened to Experiments in Time. Not because I wasn’t interested, it just never crossed my radar. I did listen to Noctunes though. His latest self-released collection of songs was a nice, easy listen, but it didn’t strike any of the same chords that his earlier songs did for me. I actually forgot it existed until he performed the majority of it at The Walnut Room last night. Once again, the songs were good in a live environment, some of them were very good, but it was hard to concentrate on the songs because the man singing them kept getting in the way.
The Walnut Room was dark. Real dark. The 25+ people were all sitting at high top tables. Some of them were eating pizza. Beal took the stage in all black, with his mask and cape. Dim blue lights hovered above, but Beal kept himself shrouded in shadows. He was a silhouette for the majority of the set. Welcoming us to the Church of Nobody, he seemed generally happy that everyone was so nice to him, even though he did not like the way the place looked. I don’t blame him. It was definitely the wrong room for him to be performing in. Assuring us that the show would be part comedy, part music, he asked us to refrain from clapping between songs. “No one is going to clap for you when you’re crying.”
I didn’t recognize a single song in the set, so I’m pretty sure he completely ignored material from his XL days. I only realized that almost 100% of the songs were from Noctunes when I revisited that album today. No longer controlling his own tape device, the music was piped over the PA throughout the set. There was a lot of on stage banter, most of it coming during the songs themselves. It wasn’t comedy though. Not unless you consider encouraging the audience “to go jump off a bridge if they don’t want to live” comedy. He sang a song about a redheaded girl from Albuquerque. He sang a song about survival. He sang a lot of songs about love and dreams and pain and loss. He assured us that the meaning of each song changed from night to night, but most of them were pretty self-explanatory. I would have liked a little “Waveringly Lines” or “Evening’s Kiss”, but I’m not complaining about the songs. I do have other complaints about the set though.
Beal was standing on a chair fucking with his cape more than he was concentrating on singing his songs. He was swinging a chair around like a maniac, right in front of those people at the table closest to the stage. He would interrupt his own lyrics to yammer on about one thing or another. He’d lay down on the stage like he was going to take a nap, and come off the stage to slow dance with an image in his own mind, and pace the stage like a caged animal. It was too small of a space for all that. It was too dark. And I literally got claustrophobic. The man has such a talent when it comes to singing and songwriting that it wouldn’t have taken anything away from the performance if he would have sat on his stool and sang his songs without the constant movement. He couldn’t have been more wrong when he claimed that the “songs aren’t as exciting as the theatrics.” He should go back and watch those black-and-white videos. Maybe they would teach him a lesson in ‘less is more’.
He ended his set with an acapella version of “Times of Gold”. He stomped and he clapped and I saw the Willis Earl Beal who made me a fan in the first place. Unfortunately, it was too late. I totally and completely respect Beal for the artist that he is, but there was a fork in the road a few years back and he went one way and I went the other. I hope our paths cross again sometime in the future, and I hope he finds his own kind of happiness and success on the path he chose, but we’ll be going our separate ways for now. That being said, I wish him the best of luck on his journey to figuring out who he is…even if he’s already convinced himself that he’s nobody.
Flying So Low (Remix)
Say The Words
Love Is All Around
Able To Wait
Blue’s Clues Theme Song
Times of Gold
Angel (Sarah McLachlan cover…to girl in crowd after show)