STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
The hootenanny has returned.
You’ve seen John Reilly in movies (He no longer uses the C middle initial). You may know that he’s also a screenwriter, producer and Tony-nominated stage actor, and you were aware that he can sing (“Chicago,” “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”). “That’s where I learned to be an actor is musicals,” commented Reilly, who’s starred in movies ranging from “Step Brothers” to “The Perfect Storm” to “Never Been Kissed” to “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant.”
Did you know he’s an enthusiast of traditional American folk, bluegrass and country music? We got a glimpse of it — albeit tongue-in-cheek — in the film adaptation of “A Prairie Home Companion.” According to Reilly, besides his onscreen performances with Woody Harrelson as “Dusty and Lefty,” there was impromptu jamming going on off the set as well.
Get ready for even more of the guitar-pickin’ side of this versatile performer as four of his friends from the Los Angeles music community join him onstage at the Sellersville Theater for John Reilly & Friends at 8 p.m. Jan. 28. The friends include upright bassist Sebastian Steinberg, a former member of Soul Coughing that’s toured with Beth Orton; singer Becky Stark of the band Lavender Diamond, who has worked with The Decemberists; and singer/songwriter Tom Brosseau, who Reilly described as a lot of fun to sing harmony with. Another performance takes place at 8 p.m. Jan. 29 at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia.
“One of the things that drew me to this music is the close harmonies,” he said, describing growing up in a musical household that had a player piano and enjoyed folk music with an Irish accent, like The Clancy Brothers. While growing up, Reilly’s sisters learned to play guitar and drums.
He humorously remembered how he came to discover the music of The Stanley Brothers and got his first earful of the song “Rank Strangers.” “I was in a 7-Eleven and there was a cassette — that shows how long ago it was — ‘Number One Bluegrass Hits.’ Bluegrass? Isn’t that the music from ‘The Beverly Hillbillies?’,” Reilly chuckled, recalling the TV theme made famous by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
At first, Reilly’s band took some getting used to for audiences that showed up thinking he was doing a standup comedy show. But by now, most people get it, he said. The group recently performed at the Newport Folk Festival, the place where Bob Dylan was infamously booed in 1965 for going electric.
“We’ve played all over the world at this point,” Reilly said. “It ends up being this hootenanny event. We’re sharing music that belongs to everybody. I’ve been feeling lucky. There’s a lot of variety in there because the audience allows it to happen.
It’s all covers. It’s all older songs. A lot of younger people come to the shows (they’re recommended for adults 18+) and ask: ‘Did you write all those songs?’,” Reilly laughed.
Of the upcoming show, he said: “It’s going to be really good time. We talk to the audience a lot.”
Reilly is with Jack White’s Third Man Records label, which has released vinyl singles of Reilly and Stark singing the country classics “I’ll Be There If You Ever Want” (Ray Price) and “I’m Making Plans” (Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner), and bluegrass covers of The Delmore Brothers’ “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar” and “Lonesome Yodel Blues #2” with Brosseau.
“I heard when (White) was touring with White Stripes, he would sing ‘Mr. Cellophane,’ which is a song I sing in ‘Chicago’,” he said. The two met and discovered with delight that not only were they mutual fans, but also had an upbringing in a Midwestern, Irish, Catholic family in common.
Besides the John Reilly & Friends tour, his next projects will be soon-to-be-released European independent films “Entertainment,” “The Tale of Tales” and “The Lobster.”
“I’m leaving for India this week … I’m doing a French film in India,” he said in a phone interview earlier this month.
Like many Hollywood talents, Reilly has branched out into the world of animation voice acting, appearing in “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” “That was amazing,” he said of playing the title video game character in “Wreck-It Ralph.” “There’s no one touching your face with makeup and you can show up in your pajamas if you want.”
He added that voice acting is much less stressful because the director’s not in a “race to beat the sun” because of on-location shoots, leading to more time to experiment with recording lines in different styles.
If a movie were ever made about Reilly’s life, Leonardo DiCaprio could play him. “I think Leonardo DiCaprio is the only person I can say that has done a stellar impression of me. He’s really funny and a really great mimic,” Reilly said of his co-star in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator.”
On the set of “Gilbert Grape,” “people were still treating him like a kid,” he said of the then-17-year-old actor. That led him to strike up a friendship that’s lasted more than 20 years.