Above is a video of Willis Earl Beal performing in Millennium Park’s Wrigley Square. Beal came up with his plan to do a live public show earlier this week, but the details kept changing. At first, the bustling CTA tunnel connecting the Blue and Red line stations at Jackson was the venue of choice; then Cloud Gate, aka “the Bean.” The set was to start at 7:30 PM; then late Thursday afternoon, that became 8:30 PM.
The timing turned out to work well for the location, at least momentarily; a tribute to Chicago jazz icon Von Freeman was wrapping up at Pritzker Pavilion (health issues prevented Freeman from attending) as Willis hopped on a cement picnic table to entertain folks on their way home. Then the batteries in his boom box fell out. And then security came to inform Beal he couldn’t perform where he’d set up camp.
Security directed Beal toward Wrigley Square, and Beal wasted no time launching into his five-song set, beginning with “Blue Escape” (see the video above). He put on a hell of a show, belting out every word with passion and earnestness even as most onlookers just stared, seeming confused. That didn’t seem to bother Beal, and he pushed himself till his voice turned slightly raspy. A highlight for me was his new version of “White Noise”; using a sleek electronic instrumental instead of the original backing tracks, Beal morphed it into a minimalist R&B tune similar to Frank Ocean’s cool slow jams.
Beal went into the performance with high spirits and came out of it even happier. He won over a few new fans among the curious passersby who stuck it out, and he made $10 in donations too. “I can buy a fuckin’ bus pass,” he said. —Leor Galil