Presence, stage presence, is an unwieldy weapon. Ambling between concrete musical talent and presenting self and work as a spectacle people would be interested in dropping $20 to catch a train and show up at a venue laughably over fire capacity is a needle point some musicians take care to tread. They’re admirable musicians. But like Francois 1 or Derrick Rose (when his career’s over, they’ll be in the same tier of history), some dudes are just fucking born with it. The ease they radiate in snaring a crowd is infuriating and the tandem hatred/admiration only surfaces after you leave the show.
Willis Earl Beal has a backstory constructed meticulously from Americana mythology Kerouac supplicants can only fetishize; joined the army, discharged, bummed around in Albuquerque, left cryptic drawings and CD-Rs around, discovered by tastemakers as a force of both storytelling and American music tradition. After seeing Beal in flesh and Ray-Bans, I think that’s all a front. I think he actually pulled himself out of an unfinished Jarmusch script to walk the earth and spread the word of “swagger” from the Delta Blues and the rock & roll of the mid-decades of the 20th century. He has the off-kilter oddball gait and cadence of Tom Waits (his acknowledged hero), the good looks of a young Chuck Berry, and the caterwaul of Lead Belly. He’s so goddamn cool he could roll a pack of cigarettes in his sleeve and no one would call him an asshole.
His CD release of Nobody knows. at Schuba’s saw him for the first time outfitted with a full, highly capable band. Foregoing his staple Wayfarers for a black Venetian mask, the set saw a seasoned Beal parsing through Louisiana Pentecostal devil shake-downs, 12 Bar Chicago Blues sweats, and the hot-breath confessionals that marked Acousmatic Sorcery. I use the descriptive “seasoned” intently; at a young age, Beal is a showman, and a good one. Schuba’s was so full I stood on a wooden bench lining the venue like a kid at an overcrowded 50s dance hall, and I didn’t mind. His theatrics and stage positioning changed scene with every song; writhing on the floor, perched on the stool, wobbling on the mic stand. His astoundingly level speaking voice in banter between songs provided a (probably intentional) confusing contrast between the hard-life bluesman he affects and the “outsider artist” he purports. In Beal’s own words, “I equate the live experience with watching my uncle sing songs drunk.” With the nephew, it’s impossible to tell whether he cracked the bottle or drained it.
Since he began garnering attention, questions of authenticity and presentation have swirled around Beal. Frankly, I don’t give a shit what percentage is facade and what percentage is pith. My dad’s been a blues-bar musician for nearly 40 years, and I grew up in rural Indiana with appreciation and reverence for the sneer and saunter music embodies. I know of way too many acts today who clad their name in neon prints and perform what amounts to an aerobics routine without ever touching an instrument. When Willis was done, he walked off stage-left and into a sweltering Chicago alley.