It seemed like Seasick Steve had snaffled the last available bit of hobo schtick and scarpered, but in 2012 Willis Earl Beal has proved that the romantic appeal of the drifter musician still captures the imagination. His story, which he imparts in an excellent interview here, is less fanciful than the Seasick one’s tales of jumping boxcars but just as engaging. The way he came to prominence is particularly great: while homeless in Chicago he distributed hand-drawn flyers with his mobile phone number, offering to sing a song to anyone who called.
One can only imagine what it would’ve been like to hear one of his sprawling, disjointed numbers being bellowed down the phone line, but those songs were good enough to see him signed to XL this year. They quickly put out a version of his “Acousmatic Sorcery” album, complete with a zine of stories and sketches, although Beal has expressed minor frustration with some of the changes they insisted on making.
The record they put out is hardly polished, mind. The lo-fi recording techniques and idiosyncratic self-taught playing style is haphazardly distinctive, with Beal sometimes singing and sometimes simply rambling over sketchy ostinatos. ‘The Masquerade’, a disorientating stumble through a club populated by scantily-clad supermodels, is suddenly punctured by maniacal laughter at the end. Elsewhere he reveals a voice of raw, bluesy soul when he isn’t busy cackling.
Going to his gigs can feel like attending a spell-binding voodoo mass, with Beal as a volatile preacher prone to unpredictable outbursts (not least when he booted a homeless man in the face in Utrecht). While he may be signed to the same label as Adele and has appeared on Jools Holland, it remains to be seen whether his tales are too twisted to gain widespread success. As it is, we should just be grateful we can hear his music without having to make expensive long-distance calls to Chicago…