The Night A Libertyville Gravedigger Played Just For Me

19 years ago this month, I witnessed the best concert I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a bunch. I’ve seen They Might Be Giants (my favorite group of all time) play over 30 times in a variety of venues. I’ve seen Elvis Costello sing to a full Chicago Opera House without the use of a microphone. I’ve seen a Beatle play. I’ve seen an artist make over a dozen costume changes during a show, and that artist was “Weird Al” Yankovic and he was awesome.

I’ve seen all kinds of groups and at every kind of venue. But, we show then I think of all of the concerts in all of the rooms I’ve seen in my life, there is only one that is in the running for the best show I’ve ever seen. And it was a night, nineteen years ago this month, when I was reminded of the blistering power of live rock and roll.

I’m not the best writer, and it’s possible that I’m not even a very good writer. However, as you’ll soon come to see, I’m, literally, one of maybe four people who is both qualified and able to write this story. So, knowing what responsibility is on my shoulders, let me tell you a tale…

The night was September 6th, 2001 and it was raining as my girlfriend and I were driving to DeKalb, Illinois. But though it was cold and wet and unrelenting outside, nothing was going to dampen the sunshine that was inside my heart. I was driving way too fast for conditions just so I could get to Otto’s, the grungy concert venue and bar that was my destination for that evening.

And why wouldn’t I be excited? I was going to see Ike Reilly.

Reilly, the singer-songwriter from Libertyville, Illinois, has released his major-label debut, Salesmen And Racists, back in July of that month, and from the first time I heard it, I was hooked. In the simplest terms, the album, which appeared on Universal Records, feels like Bob Dylan fronting The Clash- so, basically, one of the greatest songwriters in the style of one of the greatest bands. Yet, to me, the sound was somehow greater. There’s no other way to say this: the album spoke to me. It felt like it was written, specifically, for me.

It’s all personified in the opening lyric of the first song: “Last time, I didn’t make you cum”. Depending on what lyric site you visit on the internet, that last word is either “cum” or “come”, but I think this is one of those times when it might not matter which version he’s using. Either way, the statement couldn’t be more clear if Reilly was using a sledgehammer with the lyrics written on it and smashing you in the face with it: Ike is a rock star but he’s not worried about being a “rock star”. He doesn’t use his songs to get drugs and women, he uses them to talk about his problems with drugs and women. His music is going to make you groove, but his lyrics are so full of his insecurities and regrets that while you’re dancing, you’re also going to wonder if he’s ok. The “Parental Advisory” warning that came with the record should have been to warn people that Reilly was going to get fucking deep and you might not like what you see on the other side. Reilly had been with a lot of other bands before this album, and has also worked at a cemetery as a gravedigger, which makes sense based on the amount of skeletons in this dude’s closet.

Salesmen And Racists is a deep dive inside a man filled with pain and loss and insecurities. “Hip Hop Thighs #17” is all about having a bad dream that his girl has left him to go flirt with Clash frontman Joe Strummer. “Hail! Hail!”, the album’s lead single, had a very simple chorus: “I don’t wanna be alone with you/I don’t wanna be alone”.

Even the joyous songs are wrapped in a depressive tone. “Put A Little Love In It”, a song about remembering to show give your all and show your appreciation, is wrapped in the memory of a car crash victim. “My Wasted Friends” is a drinking song, and a rebellious, spirited one at that, but also reminds us that there is a certain type of drinking (let’s just call it “midwest drinking”) that always goes too hard and too far and usually ends with the night going bad as we get so much confidence we attempt to fight gods… or, at least, Illinois law enforcement.

From the moment I heard Salesmen And Racists, I knew it was special, and I also knew it was my solemn duty to spread the word of the gospel of Ike. The only time that disc left my car was when I was making a mix cd, because I knew it wasn’t just good for people to get to experience Reilly; it was important. It was crucial.

In fact, fun aside to this story: five days after this concert, I was blaring the album while on my way to one of my jobs. I was screaming along to the lyrics with all of my heart and soul. It wasn’t until I arrived at my job (running errands for a woman who had a pacemaker put in) that I realized the world was changing forever because terrorists had flown planes into buildings.

But, that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

On September 5th of that year, my girlfriend and I were seeing They Might Be Giants at Otto’s, who were playing to support their Mink Car album (which would be released on 9/11/01). As we were walking out, I saw the poster that showed that Ike Reilly, the man whose music meant so much to me, would be playing the next night. I bought tickets as I was leaving the venue.

My girlfriend and I got to the show early, at my insistence. Though it seemed like we may have gotten there too early. The venue was empty and we were only about 30 minutes away from the start of the show.

Assuming we would have to sit through an opening act, my girlfriend and I went up the stairs to Otto’s second floor. I got a beer and had a seat. My legs were shaking with anticipation. Twenty minutes, before the show, and we were still the only ones there.

Then ten minutes.

Then five minutes.

When it was time for the show to start, I heard the music from the band and I got really sad. I commented to my girlfriend how sad I felt from this opening band, and how bad they’re going to feel when they see the room fill up when Ike comes on. However, midway through the first song, a number I didn’t recognize, I was slowly starting to realize something. There was familiarity in the voice of the singer that just was speaking to me. These people onstage weren’t the opening act for Reilly and his band. They were Reilly and his band.

Grabbing my girlfriend and sprinting down the stairs two at a time, we took a seat at a table that was just a few feet away from the band. The only people in Otto’s were myself and my girlfriend, one other table of two people next to us, and the bar staff at Otto’s. To his credit, this wasn’t going to stop Reilly and his band (would who later just go on to be called The Ike Reilly Assassination) from delivering a great show. They gave the same energy as if they were playing for a full house: jumping around onstage, singing and playing with all their might, smiling and rocking out the whole time.

I’d like to think that I was giving as good as I was getting. I love live music, and sometimes I tend to get a little carried away. So, there I was, singing at the top of my lungs and pogo-ing in my chair with every tune. And it eventually became evident that the band was going to give me the best experience they knew how. Guitar solos were being made with the neck pointed at me. I was the recipients of finger guns and knowing nods and after every song when Ike would say, “Thanks for coming out,” he was just looking right at me and my girlfriend.

Reilly had made an album that felt like he was making music just for me. Now, here he was, literally singing just for me.

When the set was done, I was electrified. But Reilly was not done making sure I would have the best concert experience of my life.

Ike walked over to my table and shook my girlfriend and my hands, asked us our names, and thanked us for coming. I asked him if I could buy him a beer the exact same moment he asked me if he could buy me one. So, we ended up buying each other beers. I told him it blew my mind that no one was here, and he had talked about playing with Joe Strummer (from the aforementioned “Hip Hop Thighs #17”!!!) in Minneapolis at his last show. I told him how much I loved the album and how much it meant to me. His response was, “Thanks! Want to meet the guy who produced it?”

Then he turned to the table next to ours. Because, of course, the people at that table were the producer and his date.

Reilly was as good of a man as he was a performer. He was funny and kind. He listened as much as he spoke. He could see that I was a superfan, but also seemed genuinely surprised and grateful that I bought a t-shirt (he autographed a poster as a way of saying thanks). As my girlfriend and I walked out that night, it felt like we had made a new friend.

I left that night thinking, “This was the best concert I’ve ever seen!” Nineteen years later, I still feel the same way.

Salesmen And Racists was critically acclaimed and beloved by everyone who heard it. So, of course, it would only stand to reason that Universal didn’t know how to market the album and it would fail. They didn’t make a video, didn’t push for radio play hard enough, and just didn’t know, in general, what to do with this perfect album.

Universal would drop Reilly, but that wouldn’t stop him from making amazing music. The Ike Reilly Assassination would go on to make eight more albums and are still making music today. Two of those albums, Sparkle In The Finish and We Belong To The Staggering Evening, are as good as any rock music made in the years they were released. Why Ike never found mainstream success is absolutely beyond me.

I cannot wait for this stupid age of COVID to pass and for live music to resume. I want to see Reilly again and tell him everything that’s happened to me since that night. That the woman who was my girlfriend would become my wife and the mother to my first son. That we would get divorced and I would spiral hard, often listening to his music to get me through the worst times. That I would meet another woman who loves me for all my faults and flaws and demons, and that we would fall in love, get married, and have a baby back in July. In a lot of ways, I feel like a character in an Ike Reilly song.

Most of all, I’d like to thank him for the music. It helped me get through the sleepless sad nights and was the soundtrack to my raucous and rocking victories. That his first album is still one of the best albums of this century, and I’m pissed as hell that I can’t find it anywhere on vinyl. That I once hurt my arm air-drumming to the hit “Commie Drives A Nova” and don’t regret it a single bit.

And to thank him for the best concert I’ve ever seen.

You can buy music from Ike Reilly and The Ike Reilly Assassination wherever you get your music. You can watch him live as he, on occasion, broadcasts “The Ike Reilly Family Quarantine Hour” from his Facebook page.

Here is his new video for “Someday Tonight (Will Seem Like A Long Time Ago)”, written days after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha:

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