During a recent seminar, a lecturer asked “who are your modern day soul and blues voices?” For a minute the group sat in silence before our brains sparked into life and names like Erykah Badu, Macy Gray and even Amy Winehouse were mentioned. Our reticence to answer is understandable because apart from Badu, the soul and blues genres are devoid of credible voices that have found their way into the mainstream psyche. The selection of soul artist Michael Kiwanuka as BBC’s “sound of 2012” would suggest that the industries taste makers recognise this void and are trying to fill it. Predictably they’ve backed the wrong horse.
Step forward Chicago’s 27 year old, Willis Earl Beal who on the evidence of “Take Me Away” is about to invoke the spirit of 1920‘s blues acts like Robert Johnson. The home recording is primal and rhythmic, distorting the thumping sound of a rudimentary diddley bow to striking effect. Vocally Earl Beal is equally powerful and from the opening line of “Oh lord! Take me away” he sounds like a snarling Isaac Hayes lost in a gospel trance. Given it’s near 90 year old inspiration, it’s strange that Willis Earl Beal sounds so fresh when his contemporary, Kiwanuka, sounds so hackneyed. The harsh truth is that when it comes to blues and soul, genuine emotion is everything and unlike Kiwanuka’s coffee table version, Earl Beal really means it.