In the anthemic title song of his new album, Born on Fire, Ike Reilly is addressing a child.
"Don't let nobody try to dampen your flame," he urges. " . . . Hold onto hope and desire, and take your flame to the streets."
"I really had a mission of trying to capture that idea of letting people evolve and find their potential without other people putting them in a box," the underappreciated rocker says over the phone from his home in Libertyville, Ill., outside Chicago, explaining how the song was inspired by his 17-year-old son.
It's no stretch to say that Reilly has followed his own advice, however belatedly. A father of four who held down jobs as a grave digger and bellhop, among others, he didn't devote himself to music full-time until he was nearly 40. But over the last decade and a half, he has been delivering albums that burn with the fire of someone making up for lost time.
From bent, Dylanesque blues to punkishly intense rockers and bursts of rap, Reilly's music has a broadly classic feel while remaining explosively original. It's shot through with darkness and humor - sometimes in the same song - and for all his motor-mouth, street-hip swagger, it also has plenty of heart. Not to mention massive hooks.
Born on Fire comes five years after Reilly's last album, Hard Luck Stories, not the ideal situation for someone still trying to build an audience. Part of the delay, the singer and songwriter says, was waiting for friend and fellow rocker Tom Morello to get his new record label started. Born on Fire is the first release on Morello's appropriately titled Firebrand Records (in conjunction with Reilly's usual label, Rock Ridge).
"He's a supersmart guy and super-passionate . . . and he's good at framing what I do more articulately than I am," Reilly says of Morello, who also hails from Libertyville and plays guitar on "Paradise Lane," the hometown homage that closes the album.
"He founded Rage Against the Machine, he was in Audioslave, he's Bruce Springsteen's newest band member, and he's on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selection committee. But mostly he's my drinking friend, and he supported my style of songwriting the first time he heard it."
(When the album was released last month, Morello spent a day driving around Chicago with Reilly, selling copies of the album out of the trunk of the car.)
Reilly believes Born on Fire captures his band - the Ike Reilly Assassination, augmented by horns and female backup singers - "better than any record we've made."
The set features delirious blasts like the dance-craze parody "Do the Death Slide!," the double-entendre "The Black Kat," and the catchy, carnival-themed "Upper Mississippi River Valley Girl." They are balanced, however, by songs that hit deeper, from the title track to the plaintive ballad "Am I Still the One for You?" to the defiant working-class blues "Two Weeks-a-Work, One Night-a-Love," and "Good Looking Boy," a devastating portrait of a war-damaged veteran.
"I still don't view myself as a musician first," Reilly says, explaining that many of his songs are rooted in his preoccupation with characters who are "in some kind of struggle that has to do with the passion for work and balancing life, love, and family."
All in all, Reilly has no regrets taking his own flame to the streets, even if there have been struggles.
"If we weren't relevant and vital, I would be depressed," he says. "Having not achieved certain commercial success, the positive part of that is that you keep striving. I'm happy to be surrounded by a bunch of guys [in the band] who are tough . . . and they're like, 'We're going to get a piece of this one way or the other.' "
Ike Reilly,with T.J. Kong and the Atomic Bomb
8 p.m. Tuesday at Johnny Brenda's, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. Tickets: $12 and $14. Information: 215-739-9684, www.johnnybrendas.comEndText