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Willis Earl Beal 'Later with Jools Holland' TV series, London.

Andre Csillag / Rex Features/Andre Csillag / Rex Features

"If there is light, it will find you." The concept, soul singer and unusual new person began his performance Monday at the Drake Hotel Underground by reading Bukowski's The Harder You Try. After, he took off his jacket, keeping with the Blues Brothers sunglasses and the black glove on his right hand. He's a compact man – brown and handsome like a young Wesley Snipes. He sang a cappella at first, set to a slow boot-heal rhythm: "I got the low rinse solitary cool like a fool in the summertime." Then, nervous applause.

And this was Willis Earl Beal.

The self-styled incomplete unknown from Chicago arrived for his second Canadian appearance – he played Montreal on Sunday – with a backstory. Seeking attention, he would post hand-drawn fliers on the streets of Chicago ("write to me and I will make you a drawing" or "call me and I will you sing you a song"). His curious debut album Acousmatic Sorcery, a crude but charismatic effort of sweet blues and louder street-corner exclaim, was issued on XL Recording, the home of Adele and Radiohead. The unrefined songs document Beal's hardscrabble stint in Albuquerque.

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"Let's see," he said, considering his guitar for song No. 2. It doesn't go far enough to say that Beal is no virtuoso. Rather, he is resolutely untrained. Seated now, he placed the instrument on his lap, moving his thumb across the fret board while he plucked at the easiest arpeggios with his other hand. Later, he would use a toothpick on the top two strings to achieve a simple, clean drone.

For his next trick, Beal took the white sheet off a reel-to-reel tape machine which would play his lo-fi backing tracks for most of the night. Against thudding, dirty beats he seriously shouted. He struck a James Brown pose or two. He hardly ever let go of his rum and Coke, even as the rest of his body shook electrically.

For the last number, he asked the audience to clap the field-holler beat to Same Ol' Tears. "I neglected to get me more talent," he explained. That was absolutely true.

Sweating profusely, this lost tribe of one worked in a cathartic, self-bruising style. Before he left, he described his CDs for sale as his "collection plate." It wouldn't have been out of the question for him to ask his young audience to give until it hurt. In his performance-art, self-consciously idiosyncratic way, Beal had done as much himself.

Willis Earl Beal

  • At the Drake Hotel Underground in Toronto
  • Monday, April 30

Willis Earl Beal plays Vancouver's Biltmore Cabaret, May 5.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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