Willis Earl Beal Drake Underground, Toronto ON April 30
Published May 01, 2012A great backstory never hurts (ask Justin Vernon). Between serenading strangers on his cellphone and trying out for television talent shows, Willis Earl Beal has some serious press-release-ready lore, intentional or not. But perceived media savvy can be a dangerous thing for an artist's credibility, though he has the massive pipes and talent to render that peril largely moot.
Kicking off his set with a Bukowski reading and later quipping, "I've got a five-year retirement plan," the Chicago native was at once earnest and self-aware. While his debut record moves between powerful and scattershot, his live show was far more consistent. Tinny mix be damned, his extraordinary voice -- part Delta blues, part vintage soul -- held it all together.
Backed by just a reel-to-reel tape machine and occasional electric guitar plucking, the singer had plenty of stage to fill. His aforementioned singing did most of the heavy lifting, though he stalked the stage like a vet, tossed off playful banter, dripped sweat, sipped cola and promised expletives (which he promptly provided).
Bookended by fiery a cappella stomp-alongs "Wavering Lines" and "Same Old Tears," he showed off his balls-out delivery. Just as impressive, the elastic vocal melody of "Swing Low" -- augmented by incessant canned keys -- and a heartfelt rendition of "Evening's Kiss" highlighted his range.
On paper, Beal's lyrics are thoughtful and dense, but unleashed at a bellow, they were all the more effective. In particular, dustbowl-indebted standout "Don't Leave Me Hanging" came with a trunk full of emotion.
At this point, a solo Beal naturally commands attention, though as the stages get bigger -- and they will -- he'll need to swap the tape machine for real live musicians. Undoubtedly, it's part of his five-year plan.