Willis Earl Beal at Tomorrow Never Knows | Bleader

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Willis Earl Beal at Tomorrow Never Knows

Posted By on 01.15.12 at 01:36 PM

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Fitting in has never been much of a priority for local antifolk musician Willis Earl Beal, and that's caused him a fair amount of trouble. The resulting frustration informs an outsider stance that runs through many of his songs, which cover everything from alienation to loneliness. Those feelings were also part of what drove him to make flyers seeking friends, one of which I found at Myopic Books last winter. I was immediately captivated by Beal and his music, and more people felt the same way after my B Side cover story came out in July. Some of them work for new XL Recordings imprint Hot Charity, and Beal recently signed with the label, which will release his formal debut, Acousmatic Sorcery, in March.

On Saturday night Beal hit the stage at Schubas as part of Tomorrow Never Knows, and Beal made it clear that his first performance since the signing was a grand achievement for him, even before he played a note. "Just keep that fire burning and the universe will do the rest for you," he said after recounting his five-year history as an aspiring musician.

With that he turned to his backing band—a reel-to-reel player—and cued the same sort of soundtrack that fills much of his recorded work. A warm tape hiss poured out of the PA system, then a rudimentary beat played on pots and pans and a loop of Beal's earthy hum. Beal soon began singing in his soulful growl and carefully prowled the stage, bopping and shaking to his odd, endearing tunes.

Beal is an eclectic songwriter, and the songs he played (most of which are from Acousmatic Sorcery) borrow from the blues, soul, and hip-hop, but he's not tied down to those tropes, or to his own material. Halfway through the set he busted out a new version of a particularly melancholy tune called "Away My Silent Lover," stripping the song's acoustic-guitar backing and trading it for a pulsing beat and lush organ, turning it into a creepy neosoul number. I've always heard a touch of TV on the Radio in Beal's music—in a vocal inflection here and there, and in his taste for avant-garde experimentation—and that impression was especially strong Saturday night, as Beal transformed great recorded tunes into entirely new ones onstage.

The final two songs of the night, "Wavering Lines" and "Evening's Kiss" (his first official single), both got this kind of live makeover, with Beal on electric guitar. He played without the aid of the reel-to-reel for "Evening's Kiss," instead fingerpicking what sounded like an improvised part while bellowing and howling about the loss of a lover he never had. The song sounded more remorseful than the album version, and Beal seemed more confident than when he recorded it. He closed with a short message to the audience: "I hope to be a musician and singer one day. Thank you for letting me do a little practice." Beal may be new to performing, but he fit in fine.

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