Arriving at Start the Bus this evening there is an unusually tense feel in the air and the gig area is populated uncommonly with several rows of chairs. I hear the main performer that night had insisted on it. Tonight features two solo efforts both of which have a distinctly grabbing presence for one reason or another.
We begin with Secular Ghost who strolls up to his loop loaded devices, keyboard and guitar in a very non-climatic fashion. The overall feel of his set has a taste of early nineties dance like some of the more digital sounding pre-‘Born Slippy’ Underworld. There are also moments of more eerie tension that are slightly reminiscent of Vangelis on the Blade Runner soundtrack with it’s contorted and gnarly electronic voices. The vocals are buried for the first song but once they emerge it is clear this man refuses to under use the echo effect. The rhythm of the singing as it phased through the various effects was a like gentle saunter with a slight hint of Sean Ryder to it. Watching him perform, his voice seemed almost disembodied due to the synthesised nature it had.
As the set progressed, despite a slight disconnect with the audience where he would occasionally tell you he was Secular Ghost with a quick hello, people were increasingly transfixed as the music became more intense. I could have certainly imagined him doing a late night set at a festival for dance hungry punters as the pace and gravitas of his tracks increased towards the end.
As we prepared ourselves for the main act the lights dimmed considerably and a dark blue glow filled the stage. Willis Earl Beal arrived to waves of applause before speaking a word. He arrived alone substituting his former band for his ipod and cursing Steve Jobs intermittently due to his connection problems. He outlined two rules to the silence people seemed terrified to break; “no woo’s” and to “sit the fuck down” but conceded we were already sitting so not to worry. As he jumped into his first song a woman sat on the steps let out several excited woo’s and everyone shifted in their seats, grimacing nervously. From early I had to admit that his was some of the best singing, especially of soul music, that I have ever heard. Also I have scarcely seen a performer with such outlandish stage behaviour taking themselves so seriously.
We discovered after the first song that clapping was also banned. Willis insisted that he was trying to be mysterious and heartfelt. Applause apparently disturbed his enigmatic efforts and emotional channelling. Aside from his face mask he also brought a cape which he donned as he occasionally toured the small stage. When he hung it from the mic stand swinging it around like a cumbersome samurai sword I couldn’t help but emit a chuckle as it did look rather ludicrous. He introduced the set as something that would be intense and it was certainly that. The songs rolled one into another as I tried to determine at one point if the lyrics were “I’m flying solo” or “I’m flying so low”, perhaps it was both and neither?; it was that kind of gig. When he repeatedly sang “where is the toilet”? I was just puzzled as he did break off the end of songs in a non precise manner and you weren’t sure if he was just talking to us. “Am I here, are we here” he said at one point as we all stared ahead. Whatever the intention no one would dare have said it’s up the stairs, first on the right.
But it has to be said that his stamina and vocal strength were hugely impressive. It started to feel like an out of body experience after a while as he poured his emotions into full blown early Marvin Gaye sounding renditions mixed with wall cracking funk screams worthy of James Brown. It became a kind of epic soul/funk soundscape. He definitely managed to achieve that esoteric and unusual atmosphere he seemed so keen to cultivate but I came away with mixed feelings. On the one hand it was a remarkable show and highly unique even though a lot of the ingredients weren’t conventional. But his temperamental nature etched beyond endearing as the set continued and he seemed to revel in the confusion and befuddlement he caused.
Whilst I don’t mind that in itself, I feel he could have balanced it with an effort to build a rapport with the audience. Saying that, I’m glad I went and would suggest people catching either artist if they get the chance as it was impressive work from both and unlike much other music around.
Watch the video for ‘Monotony’ below.