Arriving at St Giles-in-the-Field on Thursday night, one would be forgiven for thinking there was a one-man musical production of Zorro featuring a young Wesley Snipes. However, within seconds of Chicago-native Willis Earl Beal opening his mouth, the whole audience packed into the church (one pilgrim had even made their way into the pulpit) realised they were witnessing something special.
Taking his place in front of the altar with signature mask and fingerless leather gloves on, Willis boomed out the first few notes with such power the audience was instantly glued to his every sound and move. Built like a light middleweight, he cut a memorable figure writhing on the floor, looming over the avid fans seated at the front as the lights turned celestial blue – whatever noise or move he made, his raw talent and unbridled energy poured out over the moody backing tracks played out by his band, both snarling at and caressing each listener. The emotions in his words sometimes conflicted with the tone gushing from his voice, yet it did not feel detrimental to the performance. Rather it offered an insight into the frenetic workings of his mind that affirmed what I’d heard previously – not least during the closing monologue. What was borderline sociopathic rant ended up an object lesson on Willis’ exacting and hugely thought-provoking take on the world.
This was blues music for the twenty-first century. The influence of Delta greats displayed in an almost apocalyptic setting supplied by minimal lighting and the venue’s natural acoustics – think Howlin’ Wolf beasting it on the sinking Titanic – but injected with his signature boundary-threatening rawness. I want to hear a truer rendering of his live voice in a more traditional musical setting, but one thing’s for sure, that Willis Earl Beal has definitely got the goods … and some.
Willis Earl Beal’s album Nobody Knows is out now on XL Recordings