“Hey Christopher, it’s John Reilly.”
I wanted to ask if he drops the middle initial in conversation. But, instead, I told him about our connection.
“I teach at a Christian Brothers college. And you went to a Lasallian high school!”
“Yep, I’m in their hall of fame.”
“No! ... For singing, acting?”
“For being me, I guess."
So, John C. Reilly - Academy Award-nominated actor, Dr. Steve Brule’s hype man and inductee to Chicago’s Brother Rice High School Hall of Fame - plays at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis this Saturday with his old-timey songsmith band John C. Reilly & Friends. Covering vestigial folk tunes, Dolly Parton/Porter Wagoner and Ray Price, a veteran cast of musicians gather around the main microphone supplying bass, guitar, banjo and backing vocals to Reilly’s unmistakable foggy croon. The versatile actor, 48, is no joke musically, either. Here he is performing one of his singles released on Jack White's Third Man Records:
And here’s the rest of our conversation:
Q: I read you wanted to “save the songs” with your version of these pre-1960s tunes. Is that true? Is their a preservationist bent to this?
A: I wouldn’t say “preservationist” because that sounds academic and stuffy. And I wouldn’t say “save these songs” either because they’re alive and well. So much great music comes along as time marches on, so we just want to borrow these songs from the audience and play back to them.
Q: How did you choose the songs?
A: Those songs that stick with you after you hear them once, songs that have a haunting melody. It’s kinda like peeling back the onion, find one song you’re interested in. You find out someone else recorded it, and you go trace the song back before the recorded age, back to Appalachia, and then to the boats coming from England and Ireland, and you find sometime these songs are centuries old. My friend Becky [Stark] said that’s how they used to remember stories before publication existed is they’d memorize the words to a tune.
Q: Do you want to avoid recording the tunes? Is this a “live-only” project?
A: We already did two 45s on Jack White’s record label, but the band is a wily group of solo artists who all tour and record on their own. So getting each person’s schedule to align is tough. I hope to by the end of the summer, though.
Q: The night after Minneapolis you’re playing in the Miller Caves in Milwaukee, dug out below the brewery to store beer. You’re kinda a historical guy aren’t you?
A: For whatever reason, people always thought I was older than I was. You’re born into the soul you’re into. But even growing up, I gravitated toward people older than me, styles of dress, that kind of thing.
Q: My brother says you don’t like to talk about Dr. Steve Brule.
A: I’ll have to redirect all questions to Dr. Brule. You can page his assistant Denny.
A: No, but how do you talk about comedy? It’s not meant to be intellectualized. I don’t want to know the rules of comedy, it just gets pedantic.
Q: So whom do you play on stage?
A: That’s a good question! The first time I got on stage, I was like, “Whoa, I don’t have a character to present. Who am I supposed to be? Who am I?” I think it’s common for actors to lack a really strong sense of self. We’re a vessel for other people. So I try to bring improvisational energy to the show. I listen to what I’m getting back from the audience and have a conversation, and people say this is really refreshing. A lot of these songs are spiritual, so I try to banter a little between songs to keep things from getting too precious.
Q: Did you play in a band in high school?
A: I had a band with my brothers - Shark Fighter. We played two block parties. That was the end of our career. I only knew Rolling Stones songs, so that really limited our repertoire. My brother did an AC/DC song.
Q: Well I know we have only fifteen minutes, so thanks for talking with …
A: Wait! Can I say one more thing?
A: So, I hear there’s this Rock the Garden big concert at the Walker nearby, right? And we didn’t quite know how big that thing was. And we’re playing like right nearby at the Woman's Club, so I don't want to do counter-programming or anything, but ...
Q: I think Rock the Garden might have sold out. Plus Minneapolis loves music, so there’ll be a surplus of folks who will..
A: Maybe we should go busk outside the Walker ...
Q: That’d probably work.