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.

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.

After trading contact info, Perricelli hopped in his friend's car, then had second thoughts and returned. Meanwhile, back on the purple bus, Kelly was telling her friends, "'Thank god that little man left, 'cause otherwise I'd have to bring him home with me.' And in walks Chris," Kelly says, "and jaws drop. And I was just like, 'Okay, gotta go.'"

The recessional at their wedding was the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love."

THE FOLLOWING NIGHT AT THE Current's Studio M—an expansive Abbey Road compared to Drive 105's cramped control room—the little man pulls me aside as if to pass along a secret.

"I was going to tell you something," he says. "All artists are heroes in the symbolic sense that they bring back something from the woods, and give a gift to the community." He's riffing on Joseph Campbell and the hero's journey. The name Little Man, he explains, has a double meaning—and no, not the one that cock-rockers might use when they talk about fucking groupies. In mythology, the hero in the wilderness often comes across a little man, a guide, who gives him what he needs to move forward.

"Don't you find it amazing that people write songs out of nowhere?" asks Perricelli. He's not bragging so much as filled with wonder. "You pull it out of the ether."

Perricelli adds that he thinks his tarot card is the Hermit, "like the one on the back of Led Zeppelin IV," and that the hermit is also a guide. In other words, Little Man is looking for his own Little Man, but also wants to be a Little Man for other people looking for their Little Man.

During the Local Show taping, the band has a false start on "Out for Miles," but the second take leaves Perricelli elated.

"I hope everybody feels as good inside as I do after that song," he says to the band.

Host Chris Roberts brings up the group's pending March 16 appearance at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. "I can't help but believe that all those label scouts and music writers and bloggers are just going to go gaga over it," he says.

When the show wraps, Perricelli takes care to thank and compliment everyone involved, much as he did the night before at Homegrown. "You guys did such an awesome job," he says to the musicians, and the sentiment seems genuine. He's still enthusing in the elevator after they're gone. "That was golden," he says.

"One thing I just can't get over is how genuinely cool and nice and friendly he is," says bassist Ben Foote afterward. "He thanks me after every show and shakes my hand."

Later the same night, at the George Harrison tribute hosted by Famous Dave's, Perricelli is once again the little man onstage. He's arrived late, too late to play before headliner Curtiss A. So he goes on last, around midnight, after the final raffle prize—and after downing a pork sandwich without cheese. (Little Man trivia: He's lactose intolerant.) It's here that Perricelli finally pulls out the three gems that he habitually keeps in his pocket: rose quartz (for love), orange carnelian (for creativity), and aqua marine (for communication).

"I don't always have them," he says, perhaps wary of a Lucky Charms joke that never comes. "You don't need them. These things are within you." The song and album title "Soulful Automatic" refers to a point where you possess what you need from Campbell's mythopoetic Little Man, and can continue on without him. Another way of putting it would be that you're expressing yourself naturally.

"Have you reached that point?" I ask.

"I'm working on it," he says.

Unless cynicism is your religion, this is where you'd have to concede that the rocks have something to do with the Rock. And you take Perricelli—the aspiring gnome, the seeker, the hermit, the Little Man—as he comes.

Once Curtiss A winds up, a few others onstage begin to load out the sound equipment, which seems to bother Perricelli not a bit. Before a dwindling audience, the small singer gives his full voice and electric guitar to a song by the most spiritual Beatle, "It's All Too Much."

It's all too much
It's all too much
When I look into your eyes
Your love is there for me
And the more I go inside
The more there is to see

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