s It's Willis' world, and you're welcome to it

Sunday, May 4, 2003

It's Willis' world, and you're welcome to it

By Chris Varias
The Cincinnati Enquirer

If you're Wesley Willis, chronic paranoid schizophrenic, opening your show with a song called "Osama Bin Laden" probably makes perfect sense. And what better way to follow that tune with another called "Paul McCartney," right?

This is Willis' world, a world into which we could peek for an hour's time at the Southgate House Friday night. And, as always, an hour proves long enough before the "joke" runs its course.

Willis, a diagnosed schizophrenic, is a 6-foot-5, 300-whatever-pound Chicagoan who in the 1990s rose from homeless street performer to recording artist with a major-label contract. The major-label deal has since dissolved, but Willis remains a cult favorite known for musical rantings about pop-culture miscellanea. Approximately 200 people attended the show.

Sitting at a keyboard, Willis performed 14 songs, each with basically the same three-chord keyboard riff and drum-machine rhythm. He was alone on stage, although the soundman, who also acts as Willis' personal handler, would prompt Wesley with verbal cues and added effects such as theremin and a vocal pitch shifter to the otherwise monotonous performance.

Because Willis' vocals are often an unintelligible yell, the best parts of the show were before songs, when he would identify them and when you could understand him. Titles included: "Does Your Face Hurt? It's Killing Me"; "Cut the Mullet"; "Nada Surf"; "Michael Jackson"; "Tommy Lee"; and a few others a family newspaper wouldn't want to print.

It's worth noting that Willis, who is black, draws a young, white indie-rock crowd. His shows have always felt like open season for white kids to laugh at the big, crazy black guy.

Perhaps that's a sensitive viewpoint, and maybe the truth is that Willis' fans bear no racial prejudice and are morally above laughing at the mentally ill. If that's the case, and they can separate Willis from the merit of his music, then it must be questioned what exactly they're hearing, because the one-dimensional joke quickly grows tired.

A new local band called Shelly Miracle opened the show. Pavement is the influence that comes to mind, not so much for their melodic indie-rock-ism as for the fact they have their own version of Gary Young: an older percussionist who doesn't visually fit in with the other four guys. In this case, it's a cowboy-hat-wearing spoon player.

E-mail cvarias@enquirer.com

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