WU LYF consists of four white twenty-somethings from Manchester, UK. They make loud, arresting rock music, with husky vocals and shoutable melodies. Willis Earl Beal is a black outsider artist from Chicago who has also been a contestant on The X Factor. He sometimes sings softly alongside a guitar. Other times he yells like Tom Waits over trashcan rhythms. These are facts we must live with on a daily basis. We have no choice but to accept them. The two would share the stage last night at the Rock and Roll Hotel. We’ve stopped asking questions.
But, just as Beal started his set, it began to make perfect sense why these ostensibly disparate artists were sharing a single bill. Like WU LYF, with its cultish name, monolithic logo, and enigmatic beginnings, Beal is a relentless self-brander and promoter, hell-bent on cultivating whatever it is he is cultivating (the very mystery and enigma of the brand is the brand itself, in case you’re confused, which, no doubt, you are). Both of these acts revolve around a common aura of anonymity, inexplicable behavior, leaving a miniscule paper trail, etc. They both center on occasionally gravely voices–shouting, hooting, howling–backed by music that takes cues from all over the map, and brings them to a single place of lovely idiosyncrasy. With these ideas circling, the two acts were almost birthed to co-headline shows together.
Beal entered the stage and immediately removed a large drape to reveal the reel-to-reel tape player that would serve as his backing band. The awkward-faced cartoon drawn on the drape would also appear tattooed on his arm and printed on his under-shirt, with the word “Nobody” sprawled across the top. Recurring imagery and ideas were already being thrown at the audience and Beal hadn’t even said one word yet. Beal wrapped the sash around himself and began his marketing campaign before anything else. Like many strange but talented artists, Beal is selling us weirdness, and we’re buying it, because it tastes better than half the bland, obvious shit they’re pawning off at the indie Walmart we know as the music blogosphere.
But once Beal began his a capella opener, a soaring, soulful bellow that intermittently became a harsh bark soaked in reverb, it also grew clear that Beal is, by all accounts, a true vocal talent. His voice wasn’t a mere voice, but a howl of assurance–a promise that he’s not all smoke and mirrors. It was a promise that Willis Earl Beal is so much more than just the weird shit he’s associated with himself. “Listen to me! Listen to what is coming out of my mouth!” it seemed to say in fits of crazed didacticism that recalled the schizophrenic soul fury of Abner Jay and the acid-infected Americana of Tom Waits, while clearly harkening back to the greatest soul crooners of the past 50 years, too. With sweat dripping from each pore, and a dingy toothpick somehow nestled in his lip through each fierce wail, we all listened closely, in awe, but also nervous about where he would take us next.
Towards the end of his set, Beal took to a chair and laid a guitar across his lap. Exasperated he said, “I’m gonna play the single now,” as if reluctant but compliant. What is a quiet, lo-fi ballad on record, became a high-soaring soul tune on stage. “Evening Kiss” is no longer light and delicate, but another vessel of power for Beal’s rich pipes. Beal may have been searching for his voice on his debut album, but after seeing him perform these songs live, it’s pretty clear he has found it. It doesn’t seem like he’s ever looking back, either.
WU LYF entered like you’d expect them too. Elery Roberts wore his signature WU LYF demin jacket, with the band’s crucifix stitched in gold across the back. Roberts’ keyboard was ornamented with one of the band’s scarves. “WORLD UNITE,” it read across. On the side was stitched the band’s crest, “WE BROS” it said in the place of “Manchester United.” Sound familiar?
Then came the instantly recognizable, heaving organ, which opens the band’s debut, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain. “LYF” exploded into the fury it deserves. Like every song that would follow, it saw Roberts gesturing to his chest incessantly, aggressively pounding with cut- like jabs, and stammering as he croaked his catchy melodies.
WU LYF are impeccably tight live, and their energy is undeniable. This is a band that has more than one thing special going on–a sound, a style, a way about them–all of which cannot be faked. Roberts is jaunty, smiley, angry, defensive, exclamatory, and everything in between. Guitarist Evans Kati and drummer Joe Manning are collected and precise, clean players producing tightly wound post-rock sounds. Tom McClung brings more energetic rhythm to the mix, and is almost as gung-ho as their hoarse frontman.
This music has a punk energy, a dance-urgency, and vocals just incomprehensible enough for audience members to yell out their own feelings in place of the lyrics sheet contents. WU LYF’s music, especially last night, seems to incite a sort of communal musical uprising. People can feel a tongue-in-cheek protest, and, even without an understanding of just what is being protested, they seem hell-bent on joining in. Everybody is in it together, no matter what “it” is. The beauty is that nobody really understands what WU LYF’s music is all about, but there’s a primal feel to it. This music is visceral and real, regardless of its contents. It’s all working towards motivating people to a place where they can feel alive. After all, this is the only band in the world that could write a song called “We Bros” and really mean it. They’re also the only band in the world who could play a song called “We Bros” twice in one night, returning for an impromptu encore with nothing left to play but a cover, and a song they had already performed. Well, we DEFINITELY bros now.
But, all jokes aside, for a few hours last night, everything made perfect sense, without making any sense at all. Willis Earl Beal’s ridiculously self-aware anti-everything stage persona and WU LYF’s smiley, carefree jaunty attitude towards their brutal songs felt just right, when placed side by side. Here, artists generally viewed as difficult or impenetrable were just their weird selves, a few people with instruments playing for some other people without them. Sometimes it’s scary how comfortable it can feel to be this intimate with completely unabashed abnormality. In 2012, truly unbridled behavior makes us feel at home. Now if only people like me could stop drawing attention to it.