The church of Willis Earl Beal invites all listeners
//JJ Brewis

Fans of music could easily compare a live show to a Sunday mass. For Chicago soul star Willis Earl Beal, it's easy to make that comparison. Beal, on tour with his debut LP "Acousmatic Sorcery", hit the Biltmore stage in the least likely of ways. With a book of Bukowski poetry placed in his hand, he treated the crowd to one of his favourite poems before even introducing himself.

Beal is in flux here, early in his career. Self-admittedly, he loves writing and singing, but hates performing for crowds onstage. Yet here, in his showy singular leather glove, clearly authentic Ray Bans, and skull-emblemed t-shirt, Beal is half accomplished onstage impresario, yet retains an air of cool unmatched by most in his league. His first interaction with the crowd is when he announces, "This is a song about redemption. I wanna be redeemed. How do you be redeemed?"

After all, his brand of Chicago soul holds an undeniable appeal, with his a Capella vocals as an unreal platform for his charming tunes to reach countless demographics. Even though his career has gained momentum at a rather rapid pace, Beal's persona seems to retain his charisma. While other artists attend to big budget productions as public interest in them increases, Beal now uses his time with his audience for something a little more personal: "I used to read out of one book, now I read out of two." He then proceeds to read an extra piece of poetry for the crowd. 

Willis Earl Beal's backstory has been written about enough times to make the guy sick of his own history, and he often answers interviewers with a slight disinterest in the repeated tales. A quick online search of the man reveals a charming rags-to-riches archetype in which the once homeless Beal found a voice for himself by placing ads around town searching for a girlfriend. Recording music onto CDRs eventually got him off the streets and signed to a record label. He's modest about his past, but his path has informed him as a lyricist and artist. Despite seeming unenthused in interviews about his live show, this is what he calls "The Church of Willis Earl Beal", where the only choir is his voice, and the only accompaniment is an old school reel-to-reel player that he switches on and off at his whim. 

Yet everything about Beal-- no matter how calculated it is or isn't at this point-- comes off as cool. The toothpick he keeps in his mouth for half the performance doubles as a guitar pick when he needs one. He perches himself on a casual bar chair, leaning back with the guitar horizontally placed over his knees while he plucks away at the tune. The kid-drawing haphazard skull image on his shirt also displayed on a white flag becomes a cape halfway through the performance, as Beal's set takes itself to the iconographic pop level as possible that it may be for one man, unaccompanied onstage by any backing musicians. 

Even in his most theatrical moments, Beal breaks it down for the crowd putting it in context, finally bearing flag to his life. "It always amazes me how I get to get up here and play these long ass shows", he tells the audience. "I got into town [and] three people recognize me. We're talking about a guy working at FedEx a year ago."

But a true performer never lays it down for too long. Willis, a performer and musician at his core here, tells the crowd they're in for "something nasty". With the reel-to-reel back on, he begins a microphone stand straddling dance, and shouts "I ain't got no love" over and over, then removes his belt as a makeshift percussion instrument, slapping it against a chair until the song ends.

//JJ Brewis, Editor-in-Chief
//photos by Tom Nugent

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