The Next Big Thing

INSTEAD OF POUNDING NEEDLES into his arms or banging groupies, would-be rock star Chris Perricelli takes walks—pleasant strolls around the block. "I'll do a walking meditation from this street to the next street sign," he says, making his way up Wheeler toward Summit Avenue one recent afternoon during a break in the cold snap. "Basically, you want to try to control your mind."

And the highlight of Perricelli's walks? A gnome. A fat-cheeked statuette surrounded by two squirrels, a frog, a lizard, a raccoon, and a rabbit—a lawn display in the snow behind a black metal fence. "In the wintertime, you can see bunny tracks, so it kind of makes this come alive a little bit," says Perricelli. "But looking at that guy, he's like a Buddha there. And he's happy. He's in this content spot in his mind and in his being."

At the moment, it's painfully clear that 1) the best singer-guitarist to call St. Paul home since Bob Mould wants to be that gnome; and 2) in some ways, he already is. Perricelli, age 32, stands five-foot-two with Zappa/Deadwood facial hair—he says he once won a mustache contest at the Turf Club. He generally dresses as his music sounds—straight out of the shaggy '70s—yet he also wears a Chicago police jacket fresh enough to get him harassed by cops and a "Small But Mighty" T-shirt underneath.

"His image is completely marketable," jokes Perricelli's MySpace page for Little Man, his three-piece band. But even friends describe him as having stepped right out of another era, without pretense or self-consciousness—a rocker from a planet that irony left behind.

"I just love seeing him," says Ike Reilly, the acerbic Illinois roots-punk singer, who brings Perricelli onstage whenever he tours here. "He's so nice. It's like he got hit with a happy stick."

It took a sense of humor for Perricelli to call his band of 10 years Little Man—initially in Chicago, where he met Reilly, then, for the past five years, here in the Twin Cities. "I get a stiff neck once in a while, but my height doesn't really bother me," says Perricelli. "My motto is, I fit anywhere." ("He doesn't take up a lot of space," as Reilly puts it.)

As we pass strangers on the sidewalk, people seem drawn to him, meeting his river-brown eyes and saying "Hello" while ignoring this (taller) reporter.

But when not with his wife or other musicians, Perricelli mostly keeps to himself, using these walks to quiet the imaginary critics in his mind—which he likens to lopping off Medusa's head. People at work don't necessarily even know he sings or plays guitar, though it seems as if singing comes more naturally to him than talking. "I'm absolutely myself when I'm playing live," he says. "I live in my mind, and I've gotten plenty of anxiety in rooms full of people. With my height and the way I look, I know that people look at me."

More recently, people might look at him because they recognize him. Last year, Little Man was nominated for best rock band at the Minnesota Music Awards (after recording only one album in Minnesota, 2004's Big Rock). Perricelli also collected a nomination for guitarist, and Little Man's Ben Foote won for bassist. With Ol' Yeller's Ryan Otte on drums since late 2005, the trio has cut an eminently hum-able new album, Soulful Automatic, with three local-rock luminaries: Mike Wisti (of Rank Strangers), Jacques Waites (formerly of the same band), and Chris Dorn (of the Beatifics). Perricelli's old pal Ed Tinley pitched in from Reilly's Chicago studio. The result, out this week on Martin Devaney's Eclectone label, is a burst of slide guitar and psych pop, flush with glam harmonies. The release party is this Friday at the Entry.

And yet there's something about Perricelli that seems out of place, and people respond to that quality in unpredictable ways. "Kids will ask him if he's a pirate," says a colleague at Mixed Blood Theatre, where Perricelli works as a sound technician. Two years ago, at the Terminal Bar, Perricelli received a serious job offer to become a jockey.

"'By this time next year, you'll be driving a BMW,' the guy said," according to Peter Bischoff, Little Man's photographer. "Chris actually considered it, and was like, 'Nah. I'm going to do the rock 'n' roll thing.'"

It's easier to picture Perricelli riding a palomino with a braided mane, or hiding out in an enchanted garden, than to imagine this gentle soul cavorting trouserless on a coke-dusted tour bus. Maybe the question shouldn't be, Is this guy a pirate, but, Could Chris Perricelli possibly be for real?.

THE WEEK BEFORE HIS CD release, "Little Man" (as Reilly calls him) is a busy man. Hours after our walk, he piles his gear into the studios of ABC/Disney radio for a pretaped appearance on Drive 105's Homegrown program, hosted by bright-eyed and heavily bearded Dave Campbell. The following day Perricelli will do the same for Chris Roberts's The Local Show on 89.3 the Current, then appear at Famous Dave's for a tribute to George Harrison.

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