It wasn’t an apology so much as an explanation that Willis Earl Beal offered at the close of his set Thursday at the filled-to-capacity Hideout.
“I’m not a musician,” the said. “I’m a motivational speaker of harmonious intentions.”
No, Beal is not a musician, but he makes moving music in spite of his limitations, which were considerable. When he sat down to play the piano, the chords came reluctantly and offered no discernible melody. When he grabbed a guitar, he tried to make it comply but the strings wouldn’t yield.
Yet there was something inspiring and inspired all the same about Beal, a 28-year-old South Sider. A voice, for one thing. What a voice. The voice suggested something out of a 78-rpm field recording by Alan Lomax, recorded on a porch off a dirt road in the Deep South during the Depression. Deep and expressive, it moaned and demanded, the kind of desperation you’d hear from a man who is drowning.
Beal’s story wants to be a movie or a novel. He drifted until he was in his twenties, and then began making music in his own, untrained way to fill the emptiness. Using household items as percussion instruments and playing toy keyboards and a little rudimentary guitar, he fashioned more than 100 crude songs – some of them unlistenable, others extraordinary – that spanned a range of genres and influences, from ancient field hollers and whispered ballads to noisy avant-garde assaults that suggested “Swordfish Trombones”-era Tom Waits.
A year ago he was singing at L stops and on streetcorners. He gave out his cellphone number and offered to sing a song to anyone who called. Now Beal finds himself on a new label, Hot Charity, that is a subsidiary of XL Recordings, the home of Radiohead and Adele, among others.
A new album of his old home recordings, “Acousmatic Sorcery,” is being written about and mostly praised by serious music bloggers and mainstream publications. The next step is figuring out how to present his music to a curious, paying audience, rather than passersby tossing spare change at a whim.
He took the stage wearing sunglasses and a white T-shirt that declared he was “Nobody.” His chiseled face and taut, slender physique suggested a young Wesley Snipes. He sang at first without any accompaniment at all, demanding attention, bringing to mind an adage tucked inside the small “novel” that accompanies “Acousmatic Sorcery”: “If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even bother.”
Then he turned on a reel-to-reel tape machine that played backing instrumentation (mostly percussion and keyboard sounds) he had recorded. The introduction of the tape player led to the night’s best moment – Beal removed the machine’s shroud and later draped it around his neck like a cape, then over his head like a shawl while singing with the neo-operatic drama of a preacher.
His voice trilled in falsetto during “Sambo Joe from the Rainbow,” pleading, “You’ve got to save me from this cruel, cruel world.” He swung hard during “Swing on Low,” a gospel song with a secular, earthy swagger, and mined the tenderness in “Away My Silent Lover.”
With a guitar or piano, Beal was more constrained, less potent. The set lasted barely 45 minutes, more of a workshop than a concert. In fits and starts it presented a gifted singer who is still figuring out how to shape his idiosyncrasies into a show. Maybe he needs a couple musicians with him who can actually play. Or maybe that would ruin everything.