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Even separated from the other musicians in a cozy next-door studio at Drive 105—the band has expanded this week to include a number of guest musicians—Perricelli seems most at home when singing. His voice is so powerful that engineer Nick "Glaze" Okonek has to ask him to sing upward, and Perricelli jokes that maybe he should hold his brown fedora over his face. After Okonek resolves some technical difficulties—"That was extreme digital feedback," says Campbell. "It hurts in my groin area"—the songs blaze out over the earphones.
Perricelli's singing is the most compelling local Bowie impression since Venus's (of All the Pretty Horses), though he claims to have arrived at his style before people told him he sounded like either Bowie or T. Rex's Mark Bolan. (He covers the latter solo and with Little Man, having opened last year's Sound Unseen by warming up for the T. Rex documentary Born to Boogie.) Unlike Bright Eyes', the frontman's quaver doesn't come off like an affectation. And like Jack White, whom he admires, he's so versed in so-called classic rock that he seems to be changing the rules from within.
Standing outside the studio afterward in front of a Creedence poster, Campbell tells Perricelli that a production director at KQRS, the neighboring classic-rock station, eavesdropped on the session and loved what he heard. "Our show plays, like, two bands he likes, and you're one of them," says Campbell. (The other is local '70s legends Crow.) This affinity makes sense: Perricelli is such an unassuming advocate of Album Oriented Radio that he takes care to tell Homegrown listeners that Soulful Automatic was recorded as an album and is meant to be enjoyed in toto.
Like Prince, another shy retro-ist with a killer falsetto, Perricelli had to plunge through social anxiety early, and in the company of adults. He was 17 when he joined his first cover band back in coastal Hamilton, Massachusetts, playing gigs with longhaired guys nearly twice his age. A few of them lived together in what they called the 169 Club, the kind of house where a keg was a fixture in the fridge.
"Here's this kid who never smoked, drank, or swore, who went to church every Sunday, hanging out with us guys," remembers singer Russ Caswell, of the Curtis Haines Band. "But he did a version of 'Voodoo Chile' that would have everyone's mouth hanging open. We called him Kid Lightning. He'd leave with his parents at the end of the night."
The band played some roughneck joints, Caswell remembers, and at one, a giant biker approached Perricelli requesting "Dazed and Confused." "Chris says, 'We already played it, we're not going to play it again,'" says Caswell. "I pulled him aside and said, 'Look, we'll play "Jingle Bells" twice if it's what this crowd wants.'
"He was a small guy but he never backed down. He had a certain energy about him that brought the best out of us—I met my wife, got married, and have two beautiful children because of that band, and because of him, in a way."
Years after Perricelli left Massachusetts to study sound recording at DePaul University in Chicago on a music scholarship, the tough guys were still asking, "Where's the kid?" The answer was that Perricelli was busy forming Little Man and releasing two CDs (1998's About a Painting and 2000's Core of Discovery). Then Ike Reilly stole the band's drummer (Dave Cottini) and hired his producer (Ed Tinley) on keyboards. Reilly offered Perricelli himself a job as guitar tech and roadie when Universal signed the Ike Reilly Assassination.
"That was my first real experience being away from a place called home," Perricelli says of his two years with Reilly, a stint that involved giving up his day job stocking clothes at the Gap. But he'd been reading the Joseph Campbell books a girlfriend had given him, and was ready for an adventure to push him out into the world.
Humping gear was a journey, but not always a heroic one. Once he was done packing up a show, the beer was usually gone—along with the journalists, and other industry folks he hoped to meet on the road. He remembers stealing food from tourmate John Mayer's room, and being kicked out. At one point, the bus rolled out of a rest stop, leaving Perricelli behind. "Where's Little Man?" said Reilly, 40 miles later.
"I remember once he ordered half a piece of toast at a diner," says Reilly. "I don't know if it was financial or based on appetite, to be honest, but I found it interesting."
Anyway, Reilly says, "It wasn't that long of a period before he was whisked away by Twin Cities love, the love of his life." He pauses. "But I think she took him out for the same reason: that he didn't take up a lot of space."
During the Drive 105 taping, Perricelli's wife claps in time and cheers, despite having a cold. Freckled and red-haired, with a bright green '70s shirt matching her gloves, Brigid Kelly could be one of the vixens off of the girlie album covers that Perricelli collects. She tells the story of how they got together better than her husband does. On the last night of Ike Reilly's four-night stand at the Turf in 2001, she joined some other regulars behind the club in the purple Saint Paul Music Club bus—a kind of makeshift green room with booths, candles, and music. They quickly discovered they shared an interest in T. Rex, vintage polyester, and Joseph Campbell.
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