Preacher Jack – Miracles in the strangest of places
Honky-tonks are where you find them, sometimes in unlikely spots. Frank’s Steak House is an unlikely spot, evoking working-class elegance with its mirrored walls, leatherette booths and inch-thick sirloins. But every Thursday and Friday night, it reaches out to working-class exuberance, as Preacher Jack careens through musical history.
Fifty-five-year-old self-taught pianist Preacher Jack (born John Lincoln Coughlin) can handle just about every song by Hank, Jerry Lee, seminal boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons, and many more. He’ll even segue effortlessly from “Roll Over Beethoven” into Beethoven’s 14th Sonata. “I’m a skinny Caucasian boy from Malden, Massachusetts, but by god, I’ve done my homework,” Jack says.
That attitude has kept his audience coming back, in some cases for nearly three decades. Jack knows the material, and he understands how it all fits together. His shows often cover the same turf, but Jack couldn’t play the same set twice if he wanted to; he’ll take a few requests, serve up some improv, play an original or two, and interpret some of his own favorites, all the while following his own passionate stream of consciousness.
Ah, but his name is Preacher Jack for a reason. “I gave up the King of Beers for the King of Kings,” laughs Jack from the stage one night. Later, he exhorts the crowd to “kiss a belly button for Jesus. The Bible tells us to love, not to hate!”
Shtick? Sure. That’s how Jack gets the crowd to listen. And he’s been caught mumbling, “Well, that went over like a lead balloon,” when the crowd didn’t listen. But don’t be fooled. One night, before a festival in which he’ll perform solo and sit in with gospel greats Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Jack tells the audience about the power their records had on him even in his wilder days. “I was shipwrecked for so long, and now I’ll be singing with the Blind Boys of Alabama,” he concludes with genuine reverence, savoring their name as he says it.
However manic Preacher Jack is on stage (“I’m an artist — my job is to have your nervous breakdown for you!”), he’s calmed down some from those early days. He earned a hard-partying reputation in the ’60s and ’70s at a bar on Boston’s North Shore, a gig longtime fans still talk about for Jack’s theatrical unpredictability. In the early ’80s, fan George Thorogood brought the Preacher to Rounder Records; selections from the two LPs that resulted have just been reissued on CD, with unreleased solo cuts, as Return of the Boogie Man. (New Orleans-based Solo Art last year also released a Preacher Jack solo disc, Non-Stop Boogie, combining new material and songs recorded in 1982; its half-hour-long title track was recorded in one take.)
But the CDs can’t supply Jack’s stage presence. He rarely tours, preferring the security of a steady gig and a loyal audience that generously fills the tip basket on his keyboard. So if you want to see roots music through Jack’s eyes, you must go to Frank’s Steak House, the most elegant honky-tonk in town.