Street Poet Ike Reilly Rocks The Mainroom


Unless you are hosting Thanksgiving, the night prior is one of the best nights of the year for live music.  Stay out late.  Push the boundaries a bit.  Who cares?  A long weekend is waiting for you to sleep it off.  

The best bill in town was Ike Reilly Assassination paired up with local favorites Mae Simpson and Monica LaPlante in The Mainroom.  I had too much to unpack on those two opening bands to bury in an Ike Reilly review.  So if you’re interested in my thoughts on those two, you’ll find them in a separate article HERE.  This one is just about the night’s headliner.

I need to begin with a confession.  I didn’t know much about Ike.  But if you’re a regular Current listener there’s no way you haven’t heard his music.  Everything I’d heard, I liked.  So it was an opportunity to fill in some gaps.  Whenever I do that, it’s a choice between walking in cold and seeing if I like what’s in the proverbial box of chocolates.  Or I do some reading and listening to walk in a bit more informed. 

The latter was the case for last night’s show.  The more I read, the more I related to the man’s background.  Mostly, it had to do with also being a kid who grew up in a northern Illinois town not far from him.  We cut our teeth on WLS and XRT and harbored big rock and roll dreams beyond those endless fields of corn.  I can relate.

Ike never left.  I understand that, too.  Most of my childhood friends didn’t leave either.  For those of us who did, you’ll never take that small town out of the man in the city.  What I found rare is a guy who chose not to leave despite the musical gifts and success Ike Reilly has achieved.  The most obvious possibility is family and friends outweighing the more transitory trappings of success that might be found in a New York or LA.  I suspect he’s just Ike back home in Libertyville.  Just like Mellencamp is simply John back in Seymour. 

So why on earth would somebody like that leave his family on Thanksgiving?  The answer is straightforward.  He didn’t.  

I’m not going to write about any specific songs.  The long term, hardcore fans already know what they need to know.  The rest of us will catch up.  It’s worth it.  Instead, I choose to reflect on some impressions from seeing him.  Who knows if I get anything right?  (Actually, Ike and a thousand knowledgeable fans in attendance could probably straighten me out).  This isn’t journalism here.  It’s storytelling.  I think Ike understands that nuance.  Like he once said:  “My songs are either lies or apologies.”

Here’s what’s weird.  I’m older than he is.  Yet I immediately saw him as an archetype.  Admittedly, you might have had to grow up in a small Illinois town to get this.  Let me try to explain.  There was always this guy in high school that was a bit older.  We admired him but he also scared us a bit.  There wasn’t any bullshit.  Because the guy could see through any kind of bullshit.

While most of us were wearing out the hems of our bell bottoms and wearing our hair as long as our parents would permit, there were these guys who spent more time on their cars than worry about what others thought of them.  The jeans were cuffed and boots, not platformed heels, were the fashion.  A cigarette in a rolled up sleeve or t-shirt pocket; a bit of Brylcreem and Old Spice completed the picture.  While we were trying to be cool, these guys seemed to have it knocked.

You know who else was like that?  Bruce Springsteen was like that.  Guys like New York’s Willie Nile were like that.  Bottom line, they were hip and we were nerds.  They made blue collar cool while the rest of dreamed dreams of sophistication in the big city.

Look at the way a player dresses.  The way they wear their hair.  There are clues about what’s important to them.  I like to check players’ gear.  Are they touring with all the best and brightest toys?  Are their rigs road worn instead, dependable tools of the trade?  The amps on stage looked like they came from the back corner of an industrial garage.  Why use regular stage lights when you can hang your own work lights?  Who hits the stage with a vintage Fender finished in duct tape?  Ike Reilly does.  Rolling Stone called the band “greasy”.  That’s accurate.  Because nothing gets in the way of the stories Ike Reilly steps up to tell. 

I kept thinking of that guy from the small town.  He might be a bit of a hard case, who drives a big old piece of Detroit heavy metal.  The body may be pocked and show some rust.  But check under the hood, kick the tires.  You come to realize it’s not about the image.  It’s about driving something that can flat out run.  Every time you step on the gas.  The Assassination is a band that rumbles even when it’s sitting there idling.

As the opening tune Ashes To Ashes faded, I texted my wife:  “You should have come tonight.  I’m hearing a whole lot of Willie Nile.”  (I need to add that both of us will claim Willie Nile is one of the most criminally overlooked rock and roll songwriters/players on the planet).  This was exciting!  I tend to think of those troubadours of the streets being an East Coast kind of phenomenon.  So seeing it laid down through the lens of a kid from Libertyville, IL was a revelation.

My friend Paul summed it up nicely on the way out the door.  “That man plays some righteous rock and roll.”  He sure does.

I know none of this projection is based in reality.  It can’t be.  He explained that as a young man, he’d worked in Chicago as a bellhop (I wonder if he related as much to the song from Quadrophenia as I did?)  As he introduced the song  Took It Lying Down, he lamented the time that Donald Trump checked in.  He schlepped all the luggage up to the Presidential Suite.  “And the mother****** stiffed me.”  Did he leave a parting shot or tell the man off?  Nope.  He shut up and took it.  Reilly regrets it to this day.  He’s not the kind of guy who takes it any longer.

Ike Reilly doesn’t play rock and roll.  He tells stories using the medium of rock and roll.  Some songs are autobiographical.  More are about the common folks rolled under by a rapidly advancing world.  I found myself thinking about how he compares to Drive By Truckers’ Patterson Hood.  They both have this uncanny eye for identifying the offbeat, the bent and flawed folks among us.  He tells those stories without judgment.  He simply shines a light and asks us to understand.  That’s a pretty potent antidote for much of the world’s wrongs these days.  

What makes a guy like Ike tick?  I feel like his introduction to a song about an old friend summed it up.  His bass player and next door neighbor is Pete Cimbalo.  In the early days of the band, Pete lived with the Reillys.  When the first of the children was born, it was time to move him out.  So they sent him down the street to their mutual friend Tom Justice.  Justice was always a bit of a mystery but none of them were ready to discover that their friend was robbing banks from coast to coast.  After all, It’s All About The Money!

Trust me when I tell you.  Everyone one of us who grew up in those small midwestern towns mixed it up with those kinds of characters.  You can’t deny them.  They were in your gym class.  You might even have run with them at times.  Even as your folks referred to them as hoods.  Sometimes growing up in a place like Libertyville, or my own home town, you see more of the world than you ever will by traveling it.  William Faulkner knew it.  Ike Reilly mines it.

I began earlier with the question why a hometown guy, a guy who’s still playing with the same bandmates he started with a quarter century back, leaves his family before a holiday.  The solution is plug your boys in the band and take the family on the road.  How cool is that?  During the Covid shut down, musicians were going nuts.  Many, like Ike, began to crank out virtual shows to keep the lights on.  His three sons, Shane, Kevin and Mickey can all rock out and joined him for the weekly Reilly Family Quarantine Hour.  Since that worked so well, why not include them in the new album Because The Angels?

Normally, I’m not a big fan of nepotism.  Most established artists either don’t have enough time for their kids.  Or they figure it’s inappropriate to gift a musical silver spoon.  Kid’s got to learn the ropes on his own!  Quite frankly, who wants to see a rocker’s kid(s) simply because said rocker owns the bully pulpit? 

But I didn’t read the family band that way at all.  Instead, my impression was that to Ike and sons, family will always be first.  The family makes music together because it brings them joy.  And joy on stage is contagious as hell.  I watched Pete Cimbalo, along with bandmates Adam Kreir, Phil Karnats and Dave Cottini grinning ear to ear as the three sons laid down the harmony vocals.  Every member of that band has been playing together in those dive bars long before the first of the Reilly boys was born.  They’ve watched them grow up.  And if you understand those small towns, family can mean a lot more than genetics.

Sometimes I feel like many of the values we learned growing up in small towns are being lost.  Things like loyalty and a sense of place and belonging.  The responsibility to stick up for one another and to tolerate our neighbors.  Because they were, after all, neighbors.  The willingness to tell somebody to go to hell.  The ability to throw a punch or two to settle things quickly.  Some of the best of them become storytellers and street poets who stick up for the little guy.  It’s a tradition that began with Woody Guthrie and can be heard in the songs of street rats like Willie Nile and Bruce Springsteen.  Ike Reilly’s tales linger with us long after the music has faded away.

I’m pleased to announce that I’m now on the Ike Reilly Assassination bandwagon. Must be since the new album was playing in the kitchen as the pie got made.  But that wouldn’t be any more accurate than a lot of the stuff I’ve just imagined about the guy.  I doubt he’s ever had a wagon.  It’s more like piling in the back of that battered pick up or El Camino.  And I’m here to tell you, baby they were born to run.