If it wasn’t for his booming voice—and his bold, deeply resonant blues ballads—Willis Earl Beal, the one-time drifter who recorded music with instruments he found on the streets of Albuquerque before getting picked up by XL in January 2012, might make his audience a bit uncomfortable. It’s hard to tell how much of his weaving stage banter is satirical (all of it?) and his dance moves—winding, committed, sexually suggestive—are not for the shy viewer. The lyrics themselves (ruminations on empty causes, some rather explicit come-ons) are often disarmingly, threateningly intimate. But his brand of fringe blues, and the hymn-like, low hum that delivers it, is powerful—resolutely soulful. We’re on edge as we watch, and we’re transfixed.

Last Friday night at Mercury Lounge, the singer-songwriter took the stage in a black cape and mask. He belted out ballads from his recently released album, Nobody Knows. There was the smooth, rolling “Coming Through” and “Wavering Lines,” a bellowing, sharply traditional crash of a blues anthem. The room filled as people moved in from the bar to hear him sing. He isn’t easy to watch—there’s way too much raw emotion involved—but one suspects that’s just the way he wants it.

View more CMJ coverage of Eleanor Friedberger, Kelela, and Savages.

Ashley Simpson writes about art, culture, and fashion for Interview, V,, and W. She grew up in Hawaii and the South and is currently based in Brooklyn.

Alexander Wagner is a photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s currently working on a book of musicians living in America.

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