A while back, Ike Reilly got behind on his electric bill. When the ComEd truck arrived to cut off his power, he and a friend took a stand. “We pretended we were in The Grapes of Wrath,” Reilly tells the crowd at iO, where he’s making a guest appearance at the weekly TJ & Dave improv show. Hoisting his taped-together acoustic guitar to his shoulder and pointing it at the late-night crowd like a rifle, he declares, “We took my pellet gun and shot out the window of the truck.”
The same mix of outlandish storytelling, underdog combativeness, and slapstick humor runs through Reilly’s music, including his new, sixth album, Hard Luck Stories (currently available online; a CD format is due in February). As usual, the record is filled with Reilly’s hoarse singing and Irish drinking song melodies, plus shots of blues and honky-tonk. Starting January 18th (and running through March 1st), Reilly will perform his mix of music and humor every other Monday at Schubas.
The youngest of four children of a career Navy enlisted man, Reilly, 48, grew up and still lives in Libertyville. His older brothers fed him a steady diet of Bob Dylan and Library of Congress folk music recordings, and by the time he was 14 he was playing harmonica for change on the boardwalk in Newport, Rhode Island, while his father drank in a bar nearby.
After graduating from Marquette University, Reilly played in local bands while working as a gravedigger, then put music aside for the 13 years he worked as a doorman at the Park Hyatt hotel. He finally made his solo debut in 2001 with Salesmen and Racists, which introduced the mix of stormy barroom rock, funky grooves, and riotous lyrics that characterize his songs.
His new record adds a strong dose of storytelling, as Reilly depicts an Iraq war vet wearing women’s underwear stolen from the local Laundromat; a recent high-school graduate looking for a job; and a single father who grows pot to support his daughter and goes to jail for it. Reilly finds the comedy in his characters’ difficulties; he brings this same perspective to the series of profanely hilarious podcasts he’s been making available free on his website, ikereilly.net.
“Humor plays a role in everything I do,” he says. “The whole tone of the show is my demise—my financial demise, my obscurity. The more dire it is, the funnier it can be.”
GO: Ike Reilly performs Jan. 18th, Feb. 1st and 15th, and March 1st at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport Ave.; 773-525-2508, schubas.com
Photograph: Drew Reynolds