Churches have become something of an anachronism in this day and age. What were once the central hubs of our towns and cities now lay dormant – empty relics of a bygone era. A handful of die-hard believers amble in for Sunday prayers whilst the rest of us sit bleary eyed in bus stops, praying for salvation from the night before. It’s no wonder that most churches are in desperate need of repair. The small congregations can’t pay for their upkeep with the coppers in collection bowls.
Thanks to Willis Earl Beal’s Church of Nobody tour, Europe’s holy houses are enjoying a renaissance and bringing back the young people they’ve done such a good job of pushing away. Last night he played London’s St Giles in the Field, famous as one of George Orwell’s homeless haunts. Over 150 fans crammed into the aisles and pews of the makeshift venue, waiting patiently under the intricate stained glass windows and decedent stone carvings. It must have been the biggest crowd they’d had for years. I managed to sneak a beer in. Orwell would have been proud.
Beal took to the stage and instantly became one with his surroundings. Like a preacher on a Channel 4 documentary, he shouted to the sky and raced through his songs, pausing only to mumble gibberish to the crowd between bouts of his trademark gospel bluesy sound. My first impression when I saw him was that the guy is an absolute unit. My second was that his voice was so suited to the holy venue that I couldn’t imagine him singing anywhere else. If he had asked me to I’d have renounced my sins right then and there.
He swaggered around like a priest in an orphanage (sorry) with the confidence of a man who’d been performing for decades. Watching him under the spotlight as he swayed and teased the crowd, you would never have guessed that he was homeless just 3 short years ago.
‘Too dry to cry’ felt like a hymn and the combination of the setting and the nodding heads of the crowd made it a very deep and spiritual experience. It became more than a man singing about getting his end away. He clutched the microphone like a young James Brown as he belted out ‘Wavering lines’, the crowd sitting quietly and taking it all in rather than singing along. ‘White noise’ is another track you need to check out on his new album, ‘Nobody knows’. No one uttered a word whilst he sang. The room was in awe.
Before launching into ‘Coming through’, Beal whispered that ‘God was in the room with us’. Try as I might, I couldn’t see him. But he would have definitely enjoyed the show.