Watch Willis Earl Beal’s one-man show

Willis Earl Beale

Beck may have had “two turntables and a microphone.” Willis Earl Beal has a “reel-to-reel and a microphone.” A Sunday night gathering at the Majestic Theatre paid tribute to the troubadour’s one-man show. Yes, it was a bizarre scene with Beal opening for the electronic dance act SBTRKT. Fortunately, the glow stick contingent was not present at the Majestic. None-the-less everyone in the building apparently wanted to dance. I was there to see Beal.

Opening with a Charles Bukowski poem that was almost drowned out by crowd noise, the club patrons slowly began to pay attention to this outsider onstage who was boldly going against the grain of dance party normalcy. By the end of the last verse the focus was squarely on Beal who paused for a moment and launched into a soulful anti-folk anthem "Wavering Lines" with only his voice as an instrument. Boy, this guy can command your attention!

Willis Earl Beal has a great narrative. Yes, better than the Alabama Shakes rise from obscurity, Bon Iver’s rustic cabin in the north woods or Zola Jesus with  her dark operatic vocals. Beal was homeless, so the story goes for a period of time in Albuquerque, New Mexico before haphazardly stumbling into the indie hype machine via an article in Chicago Reader. Beal’s sound has been described as soulful anti-folk with a hint of retro beatnik poetry. Something you might encounter on the streets of any large city with a busking scene (Madison included).
“Later on you’ll be dancing and shit,” says Beal, “Right now this is my 40 minutes.” he said confidently.

The dance-oriented crowd didn’t know quite what to make of Beal, but cautiously warmed up to the eccentric figure on stage. The vintage reel-to-reel tape deck churned mercilessly behind him spewing out a lo-fi backing track to match his charismatic delivery. Although the tape deck seemed to be for “aesthetic effect” only. Like a preacher on a mission, Beal surveyed the crowd and at one point stood up on a chair with a large piece of silk cloth draped over him like a cape. Ladies and Gentleman Elvis has not left the building!

“I got eight songs to get through and I'm gonna get through them, God Damn It!,“ said Beal. “I shouldn’t have drank all that Jack Daniels.”

I’d be drinking too after staring into the Skrillex eyes of that dance fever crowd. It takes some grit and perseverance to overcome homelessness, so Beal soldiered on through a 40 minute set highlighting songs from the just-released “Acousmatic Sorcery.” Beal’s outsider status shown through in his vocal style that ranged from shouting lyrics to a more hushed conversational delivery. You had a sense that Beal was playing with the audience toying with their curiosity about his unpredictable stage antics. Toward the end of the set, he sat down in a chair and played a guitar like a slide player would with the lo-fi tape deck reels spinning behind him. 

And then came the one final plea, “Thank You for coming to the church, but you know.....I encourage you to go ply Brother Bell to purchase a CD because we need the collection plate to keep the church going.”

The street minister, Willis Earl Beal, disappeared into the evening. His 40 minutes were up.  

the harder you try
by Charles Bukowski

the waste of words
continues with a stunning
persistence
as the waiter runs by carrying the loaded
tray
for all the wise white boys who laugh at
us.
no matter. no matter,
as long as your shoes are tied and
nobody is walking too close
behind.
just being able to scratch yourself and
be nonchalant is victory
enough.
those constipated minds that seek
larger meaning
will be dispatched with the other
garbage.
back off.
if there is light
it will find
you.

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