Willis Earl Beal completely lived up to the hype this past Thursday at Brooklyn’s Glasslands Gallery in Williamsburg. He walked on stage solo and confident after the endearingly catchy side project of Beirut’s Paul Collins, Soft Landing. With a tall rum and coke in hand, a single leather glove, wayfarers affixed to his head, high-waisted jeans, toothpick firmly lodged in his mouth, and a banner wrapped around his muscular frame, Willis started his set reading Charles Bukowski’s “The Harder You Try”; agreeing with the late poet’s recurring exaltation of solitude. The audience was then exposed to the Willis’s powerful voice as he went straight into a reverb-soaked, ferocious a cappella rendition of Wavering Lines, which he regarded as his “warm-up” when it was done. And what a voice it was! Howling snarls rubbed raw with pain and sadness gave way to meticulous falsetto all with a wavering vibrato and complete abandon that left every phrase leaving us hungry for more.
Thankfully there was plenty more: Willis then turned around to the reel to reel machine behind him and launched into tune after tune, and story after story, as the tapes crunched out his backing tracks with pure lo-fi analogue warmth. Like a man possessed, he danced and jerked with abandon as if electric shocks were passing through him as he bestowed his otherworldly voice and dark lyrics upon the spellbound crowd. At one point, during a particularly long note, the force of his delivery knocked him right off his fight and he rocked back on the floor in momentary exhaustion before getting back up for more.
The effect of his music, lyrics, and stage performance verged on caustic, and at times entirely unsettling and spooky, yet utterly riveting as he commanded and mesmerized the room with jarring noises and unnervingly intense emotions. His crowd interaction was kept to a minimum, and he remarked on this towards the end mentioning that his manager wanted him to show the crowd more love. “I love you guys! Thank you for your business!” he proclaimed with both seriousness and sarcasm, then promptly followed up with the mumbled promise of a few more stories so he could “get the fuck off the stage.” Sadly he did, after playing Evening Kiss, that saw him trade out the tape machine for his guitar, which he held and played as if it was a lap steel guitar. For anyone who was there, or who has seen him so far, relive your experiences via our recording of most of the show. If this is your first time hearing the vintage tortured genius of Willis Earl Beal, I urge you to see him live as soon as possible.