On Going to a Willis Earl Beal Show Alone
By Tafari Robertson
In the year 2015, when Lo-fi is cool again and the phrase “YOLO” is not, Willis Earl Beal seems to fit somewhere in between this rock and a hard place in a way that no one really seems to care to think about. Reminiscent of your grampa’s old blues records and followed almost exclusively by people who listen very closely to NPR music, Willis Earl Beal’s shows garner little attention from the younger generation that I’m currently a part of. Somewhere within the latest pop culture landscape created by the Twitter-verse and Tumblr-sphere we’re all a part of, there seems little attention left to be had for any recommendation Bob Boilen might make for an already bored crowd of 18 to 23 year olds. Nevertheless, the level of excitement I felt when my friend snap-chatted me from a grody bar bathroom a picture of the poster for Willis Earl Beal’s upcoming performance at Holy Mountain was impeccable.
Quickly recognizing this as a show I was going to have to brave on my own, I began mentally preparing for the hours of standing quietly and pacing in between sets it was going to take to convince myself that I wasn’t as awkward as I probably looked. However, I could not prepare myself for the show I was about to witness.
Supported by excellent local openers, Cross Records and RF Shannon, Willis Earl Beal began his show in complete darkness, requesting that everyone sit down and not clap or speak in between songs during his set. Crooning deeply through the darkness over dreamscapey backing tracks played from a small I-pod set carefully on the ground, it was quickly made apparent that this part of the show was going to be less of a concert and more so an exhibit of vocal performance art. Song after song, Beal seems to be digging deeper into his own soul and simultaneously inviting each audience member in for the ride with him. As the lights fade up, they reveal him to be dressed in all black with a long cape and a mask with the eye-holes covered with a black fabric. He explains after a particularly candid song that this is no trick and he prefers to not see the reactions to his performance as he sings. By the end of the show, however, he has stripped his cape, mask, shirt and belt and is crouched trying to lock eyes with everyone in the front row as he sings his last few ballads.
There’s a certain magic that Willis Earl Beal carries with him. Catching up with him after the show for a quick thank you, I asked him about his performance and he explained to me that he wished he was a rapper. I too wish I was a rapper and thus realized what this magic was; There’s an immediate person-ability that is unique to Willis Earl Beal and his performance that reminds us of all the crazy and interesting things we wish we could do but feel we can’t. At the same time, however, watching a shirtless and drunk Willis Earl Beal sing his heart out while balancing on a bar stool somehow makes us feel like we can do these things and perhaps more. The simplicity of his performance, along with the intense honesty packed within each song, reeks of a hardened human condition but nevertheless will leave you feeling much better than you did hours earlier worrying about how weird and awkward going to a show alone might be.