Jazz: Drunk in charge of a Stetson

Preacher Boy London Jazz Cafe

With a voice somewhere between Lee Marvin and Tom Waits, Chris Watkins - aka Preacher Boy - sounds like he's been snacking on rusty nails and gravel. Some have charged that it's all a little too studied, and that behind the bourbon-soused image and claims of family links with Jesse James, lurks something about as left-field and dangerous as an episode of The Waltons. If it's an act, one has to concede that it's an entertaining one. Taken at face-value, this San Francisco quintet's command of ragtime, delta blues and rootsy, electric folk hits the spot and then some.

Conventional wisdom holds that where mastery of technique is concerned, the American's have us Brits beaten. Preacher Boy's Brendan Rush Dance (saxophone, clarinet, flute) and Danny Uzilevsky (guitar, banjo) add considerable weight to the theory. On "Graveyard" - about getting amorous on tombstones, apparently - Rush Dance's whole body rippled as some wonderfully avant- garde phrases soared up from his diaphragm and into his sax. You could almost forgive his goatee. Similarly, Uzilevsky's banjo playing on "Rascal" was so damn cool that you could turn a blind eye when, for a moment, he seemed to forget that he wasn't playing a Czechoslovakian rock festival and tucked a cigarette behind the strings of his Telecaster's headstock.

The way that Watkins won over a crowd who had initially eyed him with a mixture of bewilderment and mild indifference was impressive. A rare example of the articulate drunk, he took lengthy pulls on his beer between songs and rambled entertainingly. Oddly, the marked slur in his speaking voice found no echo in his earthy slide guitar playing or his singing. Indeed, the more he drank the better he played, one eye shut in a boozy wince, his tongue hanging out like a panting dog's.

They closed with a cover of Robert Johnson's "They're Red Hot", which easily eclipsed that of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, followed by the deviant swing of "The Needle Got You Man", one of the stand-out tracks from their current album, Crow. The latter found Watkins musicians - the Mortuary Band - stretching themselves still further, with Uzilevsky's fluid, clean leads now more redolent of a seasoned jazzer, and Dan Andrews making an easy transition to double bass.

It's not easy to wear a Stetson in Camden and retain your credibility, but tonight Chris Watkins just about managed it.

Preacher Boy are on tour around Britain until 25 April.

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