Willis Earl Beal at the Hideout

The emergence of Willis Earl Beal is one of the most fascinating Chicago music stories of the past year. A year ago, he was “super unknown,” as the headline of a terrific Chicago Reader story by Leor Galil put it. Beal was essentially an outsider artist, making lo-fi tapes of his music, never performing in public, without any myspace page or anything like that, who was posting strange flyers about himself, which led to his discovery by Found magazine and the Reader. Now, somehow, Beal landed a deal with a prestigious record label, XL, which has just released an album of his home recordings, Acousmastic Sorcery.

Beal played last night at the Hideout. Although he recently opened for SBTRKT at the House of Blues, this was apparently his first headlining gig in Chicago. As he took the stage in a leather jacket and shades, he remarked, “Since you all came to see me, we’re going to do this my way.” Doing it his way included opening the show with a reading of the Charles Bukowski poem “The Harder You Try.” Then came an a cappella song, followed by several songs featuring Beal singing to tracks he’d records — on a reel-to-reel tape machine, of all things.

He played one song on guitar, briefly struggling with an out-of-tune acoustic and then playing an electric guitar he was unfamiliar with. His guitar playing was rudimentary, off-kilter and almost arhythmic, but his singing was soulful and impassioned. For another song, he sat down at the piano, playing simple notes as he sang. Both of these songs made you wonder what Beal would sound like with professional musicians backing him. Would it enhance his music, or detract from its quirky appeal? As things stand now, Beal is an unusual songwriter and performer who doesn’t easily fit into any category. There are touches of Tom Waits and Screaming Jay Hawkins in what he does. He showed that he’s capable of great blues and soul vocals, but his reel-to-reel accompaniment pushed the songs into stranger, more surreal territory.

Beal went back to a cappella for the final song of the night, “Same Old Tears” — a powerful performance that featured the audience clapping the beat. I videotaped that song and Beal’s comments afterward:

After the song ended, Beal made it clear he’s not that happy with his debut record. “It’s not a reflection of what you just saw on the stage,” he said. “It’s some shit I did when, I just like, I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s like walking in on somebody on the toilet. So, like, buy it, you know, to fill my pockets, but it’s not what you just saw. Also, I’m not a fucking musician. I am a motivational speaker, with harmonious inclinations.” Beal’s being too harsh about his record. He may not have known what he was doing, but that could explain part of what makes Beal so magical.

The opening act last night provided a nice bonus: Quarter Mile Thunder, a new band led by Ben Clarke, played haunting, quiet folk rock with a moody, atmospheric mix of acoustic guitar, piano and synth. “We’ve got a record done if anybody wants to put it out,” Clarke said, prompting some laughs. “It’s true.” Indeed, you can stream the album, Twist, at http://soundcloud.com/quartermilethunder/sets/twist/s-Xmjx9.