Ike hype for real

Brianna Riplinger

 

Believe the hype – because it’s really happening. Believe those ranting local music columnists. Believe the guy yapping your ear off at the record store. Believe them when they tell you that something from Chicago is gonna save rock ‘n’ roll. His name is Ike Reilly, and his album, Salesmen and Racists (Universal/Republic) wasn’t even released yet when he made a lasting impression during last months four-night stint at The Turf Club in St. Paul.

During those gigs he amazed kids, college students, young women, middle-aged couples and single men in their 60s. Friday night’s show had an 11-year-old boy pumping his fist in the air, eyes shut tight and lips mouthing every word as Reilly sang the powerful “Put A Little Love In It;” grown men had tears in their eyes; women gazed up at Reilly with their mouths slightly open as he delivered the touching song with a mixture of passion and recently-acquired confidence.

“How often do you connect like that?” Reilly said about the gigs. “Four nights, one club – nobody’s ever done it there. And to see the crowds build, and to challenge us to do different shows every night – which we’ve done, entirely.”

In the midst of his four-show stand, Reilly sat in a bar in downtown Minneapolis. He sipped his beer, glowing with the excitement and emotion that had built during the last three nights’ shows. His green eyes flashed brightly with a look of confidence and wisdom one moment and childlike enthusiasm the next. Instantly likable and gregarious in a very sincere and Irish way, Reilly was easy to talk to, flattering and funny as hell.

“I think people seem a little astounded when they see us,” said Reilly. “(The show) covers a lot of emotional territory. From really funny, to real wild, to maybe poignant; I think it can be confusing.”

After the Turf shows, he had plenty of opportunities to talk to fans and answer questions about his music and lyrics. For the first time in his off-and-on 20-year music career he was getting feedback from fans. They actually listened to and learned the words of his songs, and wanted to know what they meant.

“I’m a little taken aback by the passion that people approach me about a lyric. It’s kinda touching, y’know?” said Reilly.

Concert-goers who weren’t talking to Reilly about his music were in crowds talking to friends and strangers about it. A buzz could be heard: Reilly could be the one to fill the void in popular music today. It was said many different ways, but the main idea was that this is different, that Reilly has the potent combination of being fresh and provocative but accessible enough to reach a lot of people.

“There’s a thirst for lyrics (in music today), and it isn’t happening. I didn’t consider what I was doing to be that different, but now I realize that it is different,” said Reilly. “It seems like the songs do affect people – I don’t know why. And I don’t know if they’ll affect a ton of people.”

With brilliant, refreshing and, what Reilly calls, “candid-not honest” lyrics, the Chicago-based artist has made unforgettable music on his new album, Salesmen and Racists. With the song titles “Commie Drives a Nova,” “Hip Hop Thighs” and “Whatever Happened To The Girl In Me?” and equally unconventional and intelligent lyrics, Reilly proves to be a bright, unapologetic songwriter. Themes of desire, failure, joy, sexuality, friendship and courage, at once both vividly real and expertly poetic, afford his songs the potential to reach both sexes, all ages and various backgrounds.

During last month’s Turf shows Reilly’s music stomped, snarled, bopped, shouted, jangled and simply rocked. Reilly hopped off the stage into the crowd and sang into people’s faces as they jumped, pumped their fists and sang right back at him.

“I always thought that we could reach college kids and people that are music fans,” said Reilly. “It’s hard to make that jump from something so personal to an experience that affects so many people. If I could connect with a bunch of people and give them some temporary joy or happiness, that’d be great.”

“I don’t know if they’ll get some of these songs on the radio ’cause of the lyrical content,” Reilly said. “I (think it could be played) on the radio. If I picked my 15 favorite singles from 1966 to 2001, I could see a few of mine in there. Stuff that kinda explodes out of the speakers.”

As far as influences go, it’s not surprising to discover that Reilly never really learned anyone else’s songs and doesn’t care that much about what other artists are doing. He loves Bob Dylan’s music, but has no real interest or respect for what he’s done as a father or as a man. Family is the most important thing in Reilly’s life, and he views Dylan’s familial failures as a prototype of the irresponsible musician he does not want to become. Reilly makes it clear that if the music thing doesn’t take off, he’s already achieved total success in his life with a close circle of family and friends that have been there, unconditionally, for him for years.

In fact, Reilly’s family and friends are what encouraged him to share his music with the public.

“I thought I would just have this huge cache of songs for friends and family – and I was content with that,” said Reilly. “Then people started to tell me, ‘There’s probably a place to go with this.’ Then I was like, ‘alright, I’ll take a crack at it.'”

Since then, Reilly signed with Universal Records and endured the surrealism of going to New York, meeting the record company suits and eating lunch in the same vicinity as Lou Reed, a hero of Reilly’s for over 20 years.

While Reilly feels uncomfortable with the suits, the exposure they could provide him would allow him to connect with more people. And if he can reach them the way he feels he’s reached the crowd during the Turf Club dates, then it’s worth participating in the artificial world of corporate music.

“The artists that moved me, that sang about their own experiences, were somehow universal to me,” said Reilly. “How do you get so comfortable as a writer that you can take people into your world and somehow affect them? I guess maybe this record that I’ve done has done that.”

Reilly’s experiences and stories have already reached the people that have seen him live, or had the opportunity to sneak an advance copy of the album. Maybe it’s because these songs have come from 20 years of Reilly living life removed from the music industry, working as a cemetery groundskeeper and a hotel doorman, raising a family and studying human nature. And maybe it’s because there haven’t been enough articulate artists singing about their own lives – whether they’re part truths, observations or real stories – so candidly.

“A lot of those stories are inspired by locations that are six blocks from where I was born, or in Chicago where I worked for so long,” said Reilly. “Now they seem to have people drawing comfort and inspiration from them.”