Back in early March when Willis Earl Beal played a few low-key, low down the bill gigs you had to feel a little sorry for those headlining. Communion Music had a healthy line up at Notting Hill Arts Club but Willis’s appearance shortly after 7 will surely have left all those following with the sinking realisation that some are imbued with a natural charisma and stage presence that no amount of studio graft or studying your craft can ever hope to match.
Often belting out his songs accapella or with just a reel-to-reel tape machine as backing, its impossible to take your eyes off Willis Earl Beal. His voice has a power that for all its plaudits failed to come across on his lo-fi debut LP. In fact the live Earl Beal feels like an entirely different artist.
Take “Away My Silent Lover” (below), the version on “Acoustmatic Sorcery” was recorded when he was homeless and leaving demo cd’s around with his phone number inked on. It has a charm but his voice is thin and the audio quality sounds like someone unearthed a dust covered Robert Johnson 78 by the roadside.
Now listen to the Notting Hill performance of the same song (video below). The voice booms, recalling the early 80’s gospel schooled chicago house vocalists like Robert Owens . I understand the romance and back story of releasing the demo’s as a debut but you cant help but wonder how incredible it couldve sounded with full production and full voice. The hope has to be that a properly recorded LP follows, allowing Willis’s talent to properly shine.
Earl Beal tried his hand at screen writing and acting under the name Jack Fate (the name of Bob Dylan’s character in the film “Masked and Anonymous”). Under the same name he collaborated with the producer Sleepdeath on a version of the song “An Evening’s Kiss” which eventually became his debut single on XL (albeit in a demo that probably predates Sleepdeath’s take). Listen and download the two very different versions below.
“Evening’s Kiss” was the only song on the night that sounded in anyway like its recorded counterpart with Beal sitting by the side of the stage and plucking his guitar with a tooth pick.
After a slightly fluffed end he sweetly sang “sensitive song is over” before returning to fiery form.
Beal’s influences are wide, from the portrait of Dylan featured behind the illustration of him with his white girlfriend on the cover of his LP, to his apparently declared wish to become the “black Tom Waits“. On tracks like “Sambo Joe From The Rainbow” (below) though he is every inch the soul singer. The only distraction from a stellar performance being the constant presence of the previously mentioned toothpick in the side of his mouth. Each wide mouthed roar brings us closer to an unfortunate tooth picked induced choking episode.
Willis Earl Beal – “Don’t Leave Me Hanging” (Live @ Notting Hill Arts Club) – Video
Willis Earl Beal – “Evenings Kiss” (Live @ Notting Hill Arts Club) – Video
Willis Earl Beal – “Sambo Joe From The Rainbow” (Live @ Notting Hill Arts Club) – Video
Willis Earl Beal – “Away My Silent Lover” (Live @ Notting Hill Arts Club) – Video