“He is, perhaps, a performance artist by nature, who happens to make great records” – Siobhán Kane on Willis Earl Beal’s gig in The Sugar Club
What are audiences’ expectations? To simply sit, and listen? To dance? To engage in dialogue? Or to reflect? So many of these expectations were explored and exploded by Willis Earl Beal tonight.
Supported by the brilliant Myles Manley, who disarmed and charmed the audience with help from talented guitarist Chris Barry, he captivated with his idiosyncratic tales of love, intrigue, and awkwardness, “I F**K Your Wife”, and “I Love Myself” were particular highlights, but his entire set was one of compelling, joyous, grand ambition.
It made sense that Manley was paired with Beal, whose zealous commitment to performance was so evident. A moody, atmospheric, instrumental track laid the foundation for his arrival, which, after on-stage push-ups, and stretching, was disrupted by an arresting interaction with a member of the audience, who engaged, when Beal remarked that he was a little overwhelmed by his huge poster outside the venue.
This moment could have derailed things, but instead, framed it, providing a template of silence and connection. Beal controlled the audience, requiring no talking, and no applause, however, he “allowed” sleeping, because if nothing else, he could “give some rest”.
There was a tension in the air, which was strangely pleasurable, and while immersing himself in the role and idea of performance, he cut through our received wisdoms about what that means, and revealed a serious musical talent, and sardonic wit that unfolded as the concert wore on. There were references, in various ways, to all his work to date, from the raw nature of Acousmatic Sorcery, to the emotion of A Place That Doesn’t Exist, the edginess of Experiments in Time, and midnight-soul-searching of Noctunes.
At different turns, it felt like Beal was referencing Zorro, Grace Jones, Saul Williams, Gospel, Soul, Chicago House, Blues, David Lynch, matadors, Paris is Burning – all this, and yet something else entirely. His voice recalls some of the great gospel and soul singers, with songs like “Lost in a Dream” as a kind of blueprint for tonight, “like a waking dream…located somewhere between blue midnight and grey dawn”, exploring the idea of identity and duality, time and memory, with Beal later expressing, “I feel like I am playing with my Dad’s cutlass at 6 years old, only to find myself here tonight”.
The whole night feels a bit like that, like Dorothy caught in the cyclone, the black and white brought forth to a confusing colour. It’s tremendous, and unsettling. It is an exercise in imagination, in taking a leap of faith, in performance, and art, and emotion and meaning.
While making the remark that tonight it’s he and “Steve Jobs” (he is using an Ipod as a “band”), he takes the audience by the throat with his acapella, then flows into the sweet, sensual “Honey Child”. Later, shouts for an encore and “Too Dry to Cry” – lead him to remark that he doesn’t “remember it”, and that “it sucks”, but he gives in to calls for “Wavering Lines”, and with a (happily) clapping audience, it’s gorgeous.
Beal has previously talked about aspiring to much more than simply music, tonight he achieves that,harnessing an athleticism and physicality that complements his stunning, searching vocal. He is, perhaps, a performance artist by nature, who happens to make great records. He suggests that he is a construct, just as the concert is a construct, and we, the audience, are a construct. While all of this might be true, the reach of ‘Beal’ is profound.
Later he apologises to anyone who felt “verbally abused” throughout the concert, reminding us that it is “all a performance”. He needn’t have worried, our understanding is contained in the Bob Dylan quote he referenced earlier in the show, “I accept chaos, I’m not sure whether it accepts me”. He did, and we did.