Willis Earl Beal performs at the House of Blues, 4/7/12.
Photo: Max Herman
Soul music will never be without its revivalists, acts like Lee Fields or Sharon Jones, who reach back to the genre's heyday to preach the gospel of the music's purest form. It will also never be without people who seek to take soul's emotional qualities to new planes of existence. With their performances this past weekend, there's little doubt London act SBTRKT and Chicago's own Willis Earl Beal fall into the latter category.
The two shared a bill at House of Blues and each put its own distinct stamp the genre. Beal, a lo-fi oddball who combines performance art, rapping, blues and R&B into an amalgam as charming as it is weird, has caught the ears of XL (M.I.A.'s label), snagging a record deal that's propelling him from singing on street corners to hitting stages at major venues. There, his unique aesthetic unfolds with minimal backing—a reel-to-reel, a laptop and a microphone.
SBTRKT, who prefers to hide his identity behind expertly crafted modern tribal masks, is also not without his eccentricities, although they unfold less as outsider art than as the future of soul music combined with the bass whoompfs and stuttered beats of the U.K.'s dubstep scene. Within it, he's an act unto himself, melding the genre's dance floor framework with jazz riffs, washes of warm chords and the vocals of partner Sampha, who joined him onstage. Though chiefly a studio-engineered project, live the two beat drums, twinkle keys and trigger beats to elevate the SBTRKT electronics-driven show out of the DJ booth and off the laptop.
Weird or not. Soul music or not. That jury might still be out. But the crowd on Saturday dug it regardless.