In a former existence, Edinburgh’s Summerhall art space was a veterinary college.  Tonight’s gig is located in The Dissection Room and its tiled walls, linoleum floor and viewing gallery create a certain unsettling atmosphere that turns out to be quite appropriate.  Normally a standing venue, we’ve been provided with extraordinarily uncomfortable plastic chairs to sit on.  This is also apt as feeling uncomfortable is something of a theme for tonight’s entertainment. 

The show is opened by Miles Manley; edgily nervous.  Fuck Your Wife is a tale of envy and revenge.  “This is a long one, so settle in” Manley advises us before I Love Her Family which manages to turn a litany of mundanity into a thing of  fascination before veering off into something from a David Lynch film.  “I might have made bits up” Manley sings towards the end and we can only hope that this is the case.    “If you’ve felt weird and uncomfortable then I’ve succeeded” Manley tells us.   Unfortunately for him, we are about to experience a masterclass in weird and uncomfortable that simply wipes the floor with his efforts.

Willis Earl Beal arrives on a darkened stage to a taped introduction that slowly builds in intensity against a spoken monologue.  Beal removes his boots, hits the floor and does a set of push ups followed by some stretching exercises and tai chi  before slipping his boots back on.

Beal tells us he has some rules for tonight’s performance.  Firstly, no applause.  “No one applauds you in your life, you don’t need to applaud me.  It’s masturbation and I don’t need it.”  Secondly, stay seated. “Although I don’t want you to piss yourself or anything.”  Finally, Beal has a special rule for tonight: “if you don’t like my performance, leave.  Just fucking leave.  Don’t write a stupid review, just leave.  That’s what I’d do.” Er, okay.

Beal sings to backing tracks from his iPod which is called Steve Jobs.  His songs are almost all uniformly slow-paced soul numbers and it is hard to discern what he is actually singing about.  One thing is clear: he is angry.  Over the course of the evening he will be angry about a number of things: capitalism, race and gender identity but mostly, it seems, about being Willis Earl Beal.

From anyone else, this might be tedious but Beal has several redeeming qualities.  Firstly, an utterly extraordinary voice; he is a fabulous singer.  Secondly, he is a tremendous dancer.  Thirdly, he has a totally magnetic stage presence; think Terence Trent Darby crossed with Hannibal Lector.  It is impossible to take your eyes off him.  A large blanket serves as cape, transforming him into some kind of murderous superhero.  Later, he will totally envelop himself in it, twisting and turning as he sings like a bug breaking free from a chrysalis.  Beale doesn’t tell us the titles of his songs and it’s generally impossible to guess.  I hazard that the first song might be called Flying Solo but as it proceeds it seems more likely that it is Flying So Low.  Another song is probably called Honey Child but other than that, it’s anyone’s guess.

It’s also impossible to guess what Beale will do next.  He breaks off songs early, “I get bored” he says. “I need to fuck around”.  He introduces us to an invisible backing singer and dances with her.  He stops a song halfway through the first line.  “It’s not time for that song.  Not the right time yet.”  That song’s time never comes tonight.

The centrepiece of the performance is a scarily intense acappella version of Frank Sinatra’s Why Try To Change Me Now which Beal sings like a baritone Nat King Cole while riding the microphone stand like a demented porn star.  “I need to thank Bob Dylan for introducing that to me.  I love Bob Dylan; not the old stuff but Modern Times, Time Out Of Mind, all that stuff.  I haven’t met him but I’d like to.  Because he’s going to croak soon.”

When Beale finishes what he has told us will be his final song we are so bound by the Rules that no one applauds even as he moves to leave the stage.  Finally, someone whoops. “Yeah, that’s okay” Beale says with a sardonic laugh and we are given permission to show our appreciation.  It’s been an uncomfortable evening but I wouldn’t have missed it.  If you get a chance to see Willis Earl Beal you will be taking a chance but it’s a chance worth taking.

John Scott

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