The first time I saw Willis Earl Beal perform was at Mercury Lounge in New York City in April of 2012. I go to a lot of shows, but this was one of the best I had seen in years. There’s something about Willis that is unlike anyone else I’ve ever seen live, but I’ll get into that in a second. The reason I’m writing about Willis Earl Beal again is because I saw him again last night at Joe’s Pub in NYC. I wasn’t planning on writing about it because I’ve done enough gushing about Willis’ show, but here’s the thing:
Willis Earl Beal got even better.
His sound is tighter. Last time I saw him, he used an old audio reel to play music and sound effects. Now he’s got a full band with him, and they are perfect for the rootsy-but-off-kilter music that Willis makes. Well-versed in blues, jazz, and funk with a slight twist of dissonance that fits Willis’ style, they make his songs come to life in ways that didn’t seem possible before. Sonically, his live show has never been better, and watching Willis Earl Beal dance on a stool to a drum solo—shit, when’s the last time you saw a drum solo at a non-jazz show?—is a beautiful thing.
Just as important, maybe more, than the sound of the concert is the feel of it, and Willis’ show improved in that department too.
I never got to see Kurt Cobain perform live, because he died when I was young and still listening to Michael Jackson exclusively, but when I looked back at old videos of him performing, it always seemed like this perfect storm that is, to this day, something I look for in a rockstar. By watching Kurt on stage, you can’t really tell if he loves the audience or hates them, if this performance is “putting on a show” or if this is just a man literally venting on stage, letting shit out and not caring much what the crowd thinks. When you see Kurt Cobain on stage, violently stabbing at speakers with his guitar, it’s more than a performance, because it feels real.
Willis Earl Beal puts on quite a show. He swings the mic stand, balances on stools, swigs from whiskey bottles, dances like he’s either about to kill someone or fuck someone, and sings like his life depends on it. It’s powerful stuff. But it doesn’t feel like a choreographed night, and it’s more than just “having fun.” This is not what having fun looks like. It looks like, at any moment, Willis Earl Beal could snap. The emotions are high, and there is a very thin air of discomfort in the audience that makes things more exciting than your typical show, where you know that no matter what, shit is probably going to stick pretty closely to “the plan.”
I haven’t figured out what Willis’ plan is. I’m not sure if he has, either, and that’s the most exciting thing about watching him. In 2013 we might be running desperately low on rockstars, but fuck it, as long as I can see a Willis Earl Beal show once a year, I’ll survive.