Chicago's Willis Earl Beal delivered the first jaw-dropping set of this year's Pitchfork Music Festival. Preceded by a growing legend that's threatened to overshadow his actual talent -- discovered as a visual artist and busker, Beal has been trumpeted as an eccentric wunderkind in Found magazine and in the Chicago Reader -- he strutted onto the festival's smaller secondary stage as if he were headlining the United Center. He then unleashed a voice that would've filled eight United Centers.
Warming up with some head-turning a cappella gospel evoking Calvary, Beal started a reel-to-reel tape rolling -- his only accompaniment at first -- and began singing over tinny clangs, dobro slides and bass beats. But "singing" seems a flaccid verb for what Beal actually accomplishes. Projecting a massive, versatile voice that hollers and howls, grates and growls, the 27-year-old Beal's bellowing evokes the oldest bluesmen and the fiercest young rappers. It's a voice that swings wide, high and low -- often from guttural yawps to fluttery falsetto within a single line. He's Screamin' Jay Hawkins, then he's Curtis Mayfield.
Beal's acclaimed debut album, "Acousmatic Sorcery," is mostly lo-fi and delicate. His show is raw and loud. Twirling slowly, falling down, wrapping himself in a black cape -- his moody performance is dramatic and occasionally histrionic. It wears slightly thin, too, particularly during the stomping six-minute dirges, but it's unquestionably a singular talent.
"You've been very patient watching me up here being self-indulgent," Beal said near the end. The pleasure was ours.