Friday, March 23, 2012

Discovering Willis Earl Beal is all about the journey

Posted By on Fri, Mar 23, 2012 at 10:51 AM

Authenticity. Music critics and consumers alike (interchangeable terms nowadays) have been obsessed with it lately, thanks in part to Lana Del Rey-gate.

There's something about the emergence of folk-blues outsider and XL Records signee Willis Earl Beal that triggers an equal but opposite reaction. His story is compelling in a way that lends credence to his music, as a recent Liberator Magazine feature confirms:

Much like older performers like Blind Willie McTell or Robert Johnson, Beal has been shrouded in myth and legacy because his tale is so intriguing. Not to say that his story is untrue, but when told who he is, and where he’s come from, he registers in a part of the brain meant for long-ago and far away heroes of folk-lore. Blind Willie McTell is said to have known Georgia like the back of his hand, learned from his wandering the state with only a guitar, playing songs for those who would listen. Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads to be able to play guitar as well as he could. It’s with this sort of legend Beal comes to us. “Already my story has been embellished, and I didn’t do it” he claims. It is his story which really makes us want him.

But beyond his life's narrative, whether designed or deconstructed, is his unbranded blues. There's a difference between mining old material and embodying it. And it's in performance that Willis Earl Beal's identity rings true. You believe he's lived it, whatever it is, because you feel it when he opens his mouth and starts to sing like a backwoods Baptist shouter on that fire-and-brimstone shit.

People talk a lot about how the Internet has impacted the business of music and the way it's consumed, but it's the mystique behind the music that's taken the biggest hit. Sometimes, when I stumble across an artist now that intrigues the hell out of me, like Beal, I'm less interested in Googling all the possible facts and label-manufactured lies than I am in hearing the truth. One note at a time.

If you still haven't seen his performance in Berlin yet, you should watch it — the whole 36 minutes — because there's a story here that's totally intangible. But as it slowly reveals itself, tempered with his tall lyrical tales and bucket-full of raw talent, it confirms everything you hoped you knew about him.

Now if I find out down the road that Willis Earl Beal was never a wanderer, but some cat with a generic name whose major label debut went wood back in ’08, that would be weird. But no weirder than his tryouts for Simon Cowell's "X Factor" TV talent show that went viral a while back:

His album Acousmatic Sorcery drops April 3 on XL.

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