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I first met Ike Reilly in what we’ve agreed was most likely the fall of 2000. At the time, he was little more than a construct placed in my mind by 1) the magazine editor who’d asked me to interview him for an "Artists To Watch in 2001" feature, 2) an earnest female publicist who seemed unusually happy to be working with an artist whose music she felt some passion for as she made arrangements to fly me to NYC, and 3) a couple of unusually quirky songs that somehow reminded me of Beck on a forthcoming major-label debut I’d yet to get my head around. "You’re going to love Ike," I remember her telling me as we were driven from one end of midtown to another. "He’s just so . . . " — her thought trailed off as she reached for a ringing cell phone to find out how the photo shoot she’d set up for Reilly was progressing.
This was pre–September 11, but New York has always struck me as a place where they’re continually paving over scars that run so deep, you could lose yourself in them for five or six blocks at a time, a city endlessly on the mend, from Martin Scorsese’s 18th-century Bowery gangs to the crack-cocaine epidemic that had spread like a virus through the downtown alphabets in the 1980s. New Yorkers were so used to this state of affairs that the recent Disney-driven clean-up of Times Square had set many of them on edge. But if you can find yourself a tiny corner at one of the dozens of no-name bars at just the right time of day — those magic hours between the end of the late lunch rush and the onset of early nightlife — NYC is still a city where you can comfortably kill an entire afternoon without even realizing it.
We entered a nondescript building, took a nervously creaking elevator up a few flights, and walked through a couple of white rooms that smelled of fresh paint to find Reilly in the process of frustrating the hell out the photographer charged with coming up with a cover shot for Salesmen and Racists, the 2001 album for Republic/Universal that was supposed to put him on the map. It was clear that Reilly hadn’t been through this process before, and if the photographer had a concept, well, Reilly wasn’t getting it. He didn’t look right in the designer rock duds an assistant kept pulling from a makeshift rack in another room. And when he produced some of his own rumpled clothing — including what I believe were a pair of purple pants — from a gym bag, well, at least there weren’t any audible gasps. The final version of the album included not a single shot from that session. This was only the first indication that Reilly’s transition to the world of big-business rock and roll wasn’t going to be a smooth one.
The two of us eventually escaped to a booth at one of those no-name bars, and as the drinks flowed, the story of his unusual life came pouring out in bits and pieces. For starters, even though the Salesmen and Racists’ songs that had first caught my attention — "Hip-Hop Thighs #17," for example — married semi-surreal stream-of-consciousness storytelling to a decidedly Dylanesque delivery ("Hip-hop has blown my mind/John Cash has done his time/When you and I were in the weeds drinking wine/With that English singer and your hip-hop thighs . . . ") and set it all to arrangements that mixed looped beats with acoustic strums and quirky guitar hooks, Ike was no Beck. He grew up in Libertyville, Illinois, a blue-collar suburb of Chicago, started his own family there, and worked — happily — for two decades as a doorman at a fancy Chicago hotel before stumbling into a record deal. The hotel closed, a friend sent some of Reilly’s songs to a lawyer friend in LA, and, with no day job to return to, he entertained offers from several labels before settling on Universal’s Republic imprint. He seemed as bemused by this turn of events as you’d expect of a down-to-earth doorman with a wife and kids. Even at a young-at-heart 38, he was off to an unusually late start if rock and roll glory was what he had in mind. And it didn’t take long for Reilly to go from "Artist To Watch in 2001" to little more than a musical footnote in a year defined by bigger, meaner events.
Or as he puts it when I reach him at home in Libertyville, "I got dropped, man. I mean, it didn’t sell and I got dropped. That label was driven by radio, I didn’t get any airplay, and that was that. I have no regrets about it, and I’m not bitter about what happened because it gave me a chance to start a band that’s turned into something that I’m excited to be part of. That never would have happened if those major labels hadn’t come around bothering me."
If I’d never heard from Reilly again, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least. But we’d swapped cell-phone numbers, and before long I started getting the occasional late-night call. The band — and Ike didn’t even had one when we first met — were coming together, as was his songwriting. He had no apparent plans to pursue another doorman job. Instead, he was continuing to record, and every once in a while, a demo with a couple of hastily scribbled song titles would show up in my mail. He was right: the band sounded great. And the new songs were as good as if not better than the ones on Salesmen and Racists. As 40 approached, Reilly, who brings his band to T.T. the Bear’s Place this Monday, was coming into his own.
Finally, last summer, an advance copy of Sparkle in the Finish, the new album by the newly christened Ike Reilly Assassination, showed up in the mail, replete with a full press kit and Warner Bros. distribution through the Philly-based Rock Ridge Music, an upstart label helmed by former Universal marketing exec Tom Derr. In the years since Salesmen and Racists, Reilly and his band had been embraced throughout the Midwest (especially in Minneapolis) and had developed pockets of loyal fans elsewhere. With a tenacious bar-band backing, and producer/keyboardist Ed Tinley’s knack for framing white-boy raps, beaten poetry, and garage-rock hooks in a more straightforwardly Midwestern take on pomo Beckian folk-punk blooze, Reilly had improved with age. He sounds downright cocky even down in the dumps on "Garbage Day," as sharp social critiques segue into mixed romantic reveries — "Later that day we came upon an execution/Like a carnival of death with protest and confusion/I met a girl from the college in the crowd/She dropped her shoes when she bent down it made me feel so all alone." And the slowly building "The Boat Song (We’re Getting Loaded)" is as good an underdog anthem as the Replacements ever wrote, only Reilly fills his ship with a whole load of witty Dylanesque rambling sung in an unmistakably subterranean-homesick-blues cadence — "empty bottles and broken models with their hollow smiles and open throttles . . . all these moneyed men with their flight attendants . . . the promise keepers, yeah those righteous creeps, the legend seekers of the Ivy League . . . the vulgar boatmen and the drunken showmen and the Willy Lomans of rock and roll" — before getting loaded with "the cheap-seats boys." Let’s just say it’s not hard to see why Minneapolis has been so kind to Reilly. Or for that matter, why critics have had such a hard time deciding whether the Ike Reilly Assassination are the best bar band in America or, more potently, a vehicle for a gifted songwriter to fuse the wise-ass ramblings of Dylan with the lovable underachiever fight songs of the Replacements.
Reilly for his part isn’t sure what to think of it all, especially when it comes to Minneapolis and the Replacements. "They make that Replacements comparison a lot, and I don’t know . . . that term bar band has always sounded distasteful to me. But I guess I’ve also always thought of the Clash and the Stones as bar bands. So I have mixed feelings about it. But where I’m from, you see guys who are playing ‘Proud Mary’ and that’s a bar band. Or maybe those are just cover bands. So I guess I’ve come to accept the bar-band thing, even though I think our songs are produced really well."
There is, however, no denying the Dylan thing. "I know we’ve talked about this before, but what Dylan did in ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is some of the first rapping. But we’re not like Rage Against the Machine or anything. Our politics aren’t overt. If you listen to the music, you’ll find subversiveness there. But I could never be the kind of protest singer who could get up there and say, ‘Lay down your arms.’ The band in the song ‘Ex-Americans’ are sort of that mythological band that I wish I could have been in. While you call us a bar band, the Ex-Americans are a band who would mean something to people — a band with a political agenda. But the joke is, people go to see them based on some kind of protest, but the guy in the band really just wants to know if he can get his drinks for free."
Twists like that are central to Reilly’s appeal. He always lets you in on the joke — as in "American Thighs #17," when he lashes out, "No limey ever wrote a song like ‘I Walk the Line’ " — but he’s not usually just kidding around. "I think there’s a celebratory nature to even the darkest themes that come through in my songs. I don’t know, you and I have talked so much about this, but the overall approach to my songwriting is like the dark humor at an Irish wake. Because I kid about something or make fun of it doesn’t mean that I don’t care."
Indeed, Reilly can’t help finding humor even in sacrosanct subjects like the surge of patriotism that followed September 11. "I wrote an answer to all of that that we aren’t going to record. It’s called ‘They Really Put the Cunt Back into Country,’ and it’s based on the selling of patriotism through those country songs by guys like Toby Keith, you know, singing about putting his foot up Saddam’s ass and that kind of crap. I love that song because there’s nothing like singing ‘cunt’ 25 times in three minutes in front of a crowd that’s never heard you before."
The Ike Reilly Assassination headline this Monday, March 14, at T.T. the Bear’s Place, 10 Brookline Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts's Central Square; call (617) 492-BEAR.
Issue Date: March 11 - 17, 2005
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