View From the Pew

Singer-songwriter Preacher Boy keeps it on the move with a brand of unconventional blues

Preacher Boy is on the run.

The artist formerly known as Christopher Watkins is somewhere just past the exit to Boise, trying to get the hell out of Utah as fast as he can. "We are really in the wilds now, man. I don't know how long it's gonna hold out," he reports over a crackling cell phone connection.

Truth be told, last night's show -- the first on the western leg of Preacher Boy's current jaunt -- went as well as could be expected. Alone on stage, but accompanied by a collection of guitars (acoustic, National slide, 12-string, nylon-string), mandolins, banjos, harmonicas and sundry other instruments within easy reach, Preacher Boy delivered a set of solo acoustic music that seemed to go over well, and encountered no significant tech problems. However, he's taking today off just the same.

Preacher Boy: Tales of loners and outcasts litter his latest effort, The Devil's Buttermilk.
Amy Marinelli
Preacher Boy: Tales of loners and outcasts litter his latest effort, The Devil's Buttermilk.


Scheduled to perform on Monday, February 26. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Sail Inn in Tempe

"Opening night you never know what's going to happen, how many instruments are going to snap in half, so I tried to give myself one night where I could fix whatever went wrong. It was kind of a guinea pig show, 'cause I'd never really done that kind of setup before."

The multi-instrumental Watkins is no stranger to playing with a lot of gear cluttering up the stage, but this time out, the context is unique. "Last time I was out and with a band, we'd set up a situation where every guy had to play like five different instruments, and at the end of every song, everybody was scrambling, trying to figure out what to pick up next. This time, I can pretend like I'm still in a band and have lots of crap equipment to carry. But doing it all on your own is a lot different.

"Playing a song in a solo acoustic version," he says, "is sort of like finding out what a song sounds like when it's drunk."

The eminently quotable Christopher Watkins began performing as Preacher Boy in 1992, in San Francisco's roots-blues scene, backed by a rotating group called the Natural Blues. A mournful-eyed fellow who looked far too young and Caucasian to be singing the blues in any capacity, Preacher Boy's credibility lay in his voice, which sounded (and we mean this in the most complimentary way possible) like an angry giant gargling rock salt. Every single bit of press Preacher Boy received remarked on Watkins' vocal delivery, and rightly so. Preacher Boy and the Natural Blues recorded two albums for contemporary blues label Blind Pig, revivalist exercises rooted in the country-blues tradition Watkins had absorbed as a kid, listening to his parents' Howlin' Wolf records.

But in 1997, Preacher Boy, by mutual agreement with Blind Pig, signed exclusively to a British label called Wah'tup; and the following year he released Crow, a grab-bag album that found him stretching his generic affiliations more than a bit, relying heavily on noise and instrumental experimentation. It was a significant departure for a young man who'd received generally affable, if reserved, critical praise. Crow, by contrast, got uniformly excellent press, and Preacher Boy and his girlfriend went backpacking through England and Ireland to take a bit of a needed break.

While traveling, they fell in love with the Irish countryside; when Preacher Boy's companion, a painter, found an art school in the area built into a 16th-century tower on the coast of Galway Bay, they decided to pack up and move to Ireland for a bit. "We had both been in San Francisco for years, and kind of dug ourselves into whatever trenches you dig yourself into when you've been in one place for too long. So we both agreed that a gradual change of scene wasn't gonna work. We were both ready to cut all ties, burn every bridge and just hit the road. In retrospect, it was one of the best years of my life."

Committed to the extended stay, they got set to make the move, but along the way, Preacher Boy stopped in London to perform a single solo acoustic show. In the audience that night was a scouter, a man who worked for an agency called Primary Talent, who approached Watkins after the set. By morning he was signed as a solo performer, and the scouter told Watkins he'd be in touch.

"I didn't expect to hear from him, really. My girlfriend and I were living in a tiny fishing village: Two pay phones, one grocery store, five pubs. I was having to call my label and say, 'Okay, give me a call back at this time on this day; I'll be at the pay phone near the third pub.'" But three weeks later, Primary Talent asked Preacher Boy to open up a three-week, 17-city European tour for Eagle-Eye Cherry -- son of Don, brother of Nenah -- on two conditions. One, you have to do it solo acoustic (". . . to which I said, 'Okay, that's good, because I don't have a band and I don't know anybody here anyway . . .'"); and two, you have to leave in four days.

The shows went swimmingly: Eagle-Eye featured Preacher Boy in his own sets each night, songs got written, paintings got painted, and late last year, Preacher Boy released The Devil's Buttermilk, a not-really-blues collection that serves as a jangly tour-de-force showcase for a devilishly talented performer.

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