Pitchfork Music Festival 2012, live review | Willis Earl Beal
"Thank you for letting me sing real songs," said Willis Earl Beal between numbers. "You come out and you wanna hear folk songs, rock songs. That other shit don't make no goddamn sense." His choice to diss the festival’s “other shit” was in character, especially considering his own enigmatic "realness" quotient. A good artist will make you question his ratio of affectation vs. authenticity, but Beal turned that question into an exam. I dare anyone to outdo Beal's swagger this weekend. Rocking a tight, black, trademark "Nobody" t-shirt tucked into tight-ass jeans, black shades, leather gloves with the figertips cut off, shiny black boots and something like Kanye's 808s-era haircut, dude looked like the lovechild of Blade and Axel Foley. When he donned a black cape bearing the same x’ed-out smiley face from his “Nobody” shirt, you could’ve thrown Darth Sidious into that equation. Vocally, I could hear echoes of both Ben Vereen and Levi Stubbs.
Beal’s vision seems limitless, drawing from all manner of influences while being channeled through a distinctly narrow filter. For starters, he sings along with a reel-to-reel tape machine, an awesome if pretentious fuck-you to the new school. “They say I’m overindulgent and sappy,” he said. “And I’m proud. I am. I try hard.” I don’t know about sappy, but Beal’s overindulgence is exactly what makes him such a joy to watch. He appeared drunk from the moment he came onstage, but not the sloppy, sad drunk you pity, but the wild, unpredictable drunk that seems to only live in rock 'n’ roll legend these days. One moment, he was lying on the stage, sunglasses falling off in agony. The next, he was adjusting a mic stand and asking the crowd where he put his whiskey… while holding his whiskey. All this, of course, after accidentally spilling his whiskey/coke off a guitar stand and receiving a chorus of “awww”s from the audience. He shrugged, picked up his pint of Jack, and didn’t put it back down the rest of the set. At the end of the show, he led us in a stomp-clap a cappella tune, utilizing audience participation of childlike simplicity. But it was downright moving.
In April, Beal told TOC that he wanted to be the black Tom Waits. Between his stomps, shuffles and shouts, he’s already there with the histrionics. What comes next is finding out who the hell he is. He’s already kicked a homeless man in the face this year. You needn’t dig further than his Wikipedia page for a truly awesome bio. But even with all that in mind, at the end of his set, I couldn’t believe I had seen a man gut himself onstage, and yet, I didn’t have a clue who he was. That’s the beauty of Beal, though. He’s all about the questions, at least for now. Answers can wait.