When: Thu., Oct. 8, 9 p.m.-12 a.m. 2015
WILLIS EARL BEAL | THURSDAY, OCT. 8
DUKE COFFEEHOUSE, DURHAM—Willis Earl Beal drifted toward the spotlight a few years back—first as an irresistible story and then as a pretty interesting musician. A former soldier and dedicated home recorder, he struggled with alcoholism and homelessness while building a large body of strangely formed blues. Beal would almost haphazardly leave CDs of his songs attached to cryptic notes—a hell of a hook for getting discovered. But there were holes in that pristine folk story, including unearthed evidence of Beal trying out for a TV reality show and stories of him dropping his stuff in the hippest, media-frequented Chicago coffee shops. But you can display an ability for canny self-marketing and still be volatile.
His post-discovery life hasn't been smooth, actually. He was arrested in Utrecht in 2012 after allegedly kicking a homeless show-goer in the face. This past summer, Beal spent a couple of weeks in jail for "criminal mischief" after a Portland, Oregon, gig ended in a "wild night" and a broken venue window. Too bad, because he had a pretty decent chance to cross over. After the release of his hypnotic, low-key debut, Acousmatic Sorcery, Beal made Nobody knows. Recorded in the studio and released with the help of big-deal independent label XL, the album included a cameo from kindred spirit-in-soul-trouble Cat Power. The music was hi-fi by design, a mostly successful test case for pulling an obscure songwriter into center stage. On songs like the bawdy, beat-swaggering "Too Dry to Cry," Beal sounded like the major artist his early stuff suggested he might be.
Dissatisfied with the way he'd been presented, Beal blew up that record deal and that version of himself soon thereafter. Not content to soundtrack Urban Outfitters dressing rooms, he's since rededicated to self-releasing music made for "all the lonely psychopaths that listen to music in the middle of the night while riding their bikes." That description turns out to be a lot more evocative than the material. Both 2014's Experiments in Time and this year's Nocturnes dropped his tempo significantly and rushed back into the CD-R sonics of his earliest stuff. Beal might well cement the purity of his intent with a self-inflicted wound. With Crater. 9 p.m., $5, 106 Epworth Lane, Durham, www.dukecoffeehouse.org. —Jeff Klingman