Credit: <br/>Photo by Jeffrey Bivens

Beau O’Reilly, 68, has been a fixture on Chicago’s fringe theater and music scenes for decades, most notably with the Curious Theatre Branch (coproducers of the annual Rhino Fest), Maestro Subgum & the Whole, and the Crooked Mouth. During the pandemic, O’Reilly recorded a new album, Thrifty (Uvulittle), that features 14 tracks created at a distance with collaborators around the country. He’s throwing a release party at Constellation on Saturday, May 15, at 8 PM.

As told to Kerry Reid

I grew up with nine sisters and four brothers, and it was very much a theatrical family and a singing family. So my mother and my father both sang and sang well, and they loved to get us all to sing and teach us parts. We grew up singing folk songs around the table. By the time I was about 15 or 16, I had deeply fallen into listening to a lot of recorded music—early Dylan and the Doors and the Beatles and that kind of stuff. And my brothers had some of that, but mostly I scrimped and did paper routes and shit so that I could just buy records. So in my family, the joke always was that 90 percent of the records in the house were Beau’s, which was true.

And my mother, bless her heart, was great about it, because I often in high school slept in the living room because we lived in a tiny place. So I slept in the living room just because the stereo was there and I could listen to music late at night, and she never, never told me not to. She would object when I listened to “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” She hated that song.

I think around that age, my father [James O’Reilly] did this production of The Threepenny Opera at the Court Theatre in Chicago, where he was then the artistic director. And I went and saw it and it really blew my mind. We’d listen to a lot of musicals and that kind of stuff in our house, but that particular piece was just so tremendous—it really altered my sense of theater and songs in a way that stayed with me, pretty much since then.

When I was in my teens, I was in folk groups, big folk groups with lots of singers. And I was often the guy who would do the stories and introduce the songs. We played at county fairs and coffeehouses, but we were way too big really for any of that—12 or 13 people. I got introduced to Phil Ochs that way and Richard Fariña and those Village folk people who were not Bob Dylan. I learned from those guys and was very into them. Then in my early 20s, I was with this group of people that included two of my sisters and Court Dorsey, whose song [“Love Around the Corner”] I do now.

  • Court Dorsey’s song “Love Around the Corner” appears on Thrifty.

We had an experimental theater company. And we worked out of this little club in DeKalb, Illinois, called Juicy John Pink’s. And when the owners decided to leave, they basically gave us this club. So we had this folk-music club with a reputation. We ran that club and I did all the booking, and Michael and Barbara Smith and Greg Brown and Bob Gibson and people like that came and played. And again, every night I just soaked that stuff up. I was really into the songs. We had this theater company that came out of that group of people, and at a certain point, we had some disagreements about things and three of us split from the theater company to do our own thing.

And that thing became Maestro Subgum & the Whole. So that was the first version of Maestro Subgum. It was me and my older sister Cecilie and a pianist named Kit Keasey. It was very stripped-down. You know, we didn’t have a band, but it was a cabaret act. I developed this character, Lefty Fizzle was his name, and he was this old vaudevillian that lived in a trunk at the back of the stage that they would pull out when it was time to do a show. And he would come out and he would tell stories and introduce the songs. And mostly in that band, I was like the third voice. They were the more sophisticated musicians. I occasionally wrote lyrics, but not that much.

That was the first version of Maestro Subgum & the Whole, which lasted on and off for about 25 years and had lots of different incarnations. And the only consistent thing the whole time was me and this Lefty Fizzle character. It was interesting to live with the character that long. And so over the course of that, eventually I started to write with different musicians in the band. I would write the lyrics and they would write the music, mostly, to keep new songs coming at first. There was a version of the band that was probably the best-known version of the band in Chicago, and we made five or six records together—that was with Jenny Magnus and Miki Greenberg. The three of us wrote a lot for that band. We wrote together often, but we also wrote separately. And again, I was mostly the lyricist.

And then that band really broke up for good after a while. And there was a period of no music, really, for me. I wrote one song I think in five years during that period, after having written dozens. And then I decided I really was missing the music. So I put together the first version of the Crooked Mouth, which was called the Crooked Mouth String Band. The first incarnation, it didn’t have a drummer. Jenny came to see the band and said, “Well, the band is good, but you really need a drummer.” And she was a drummer. And so I asked Jenny to be in the band, and the Crooked Mouth has been a band now for a little over ten years. We’ll play as often as we can. We mostly play galleries and theaters and some music clubs. They’re very good musicians and really good friends. And most of us have worked together on theater pieces as well.

I’ve always written more than people can keep up with. I write a lot of plays and I write a lot of lyrics. I just write all the time. The band could never quite keep up with the amount of lyrics I was writing. We were making a record, the next Crooked Mouth record, a few years ago. And then Ryan [Wright], who was the guitarist in the band, died. And it took us some time to recover from that. And we still haven’t finished that record. We were right on the verge of finishing, it seemed like, and then the pandemic hit and people in the band just felt like they couldn’t rehearse together or be together in order to do a recording, which I respected.

I felt that as well. So that was where Thrifty started. I had ideas for some songs and I had some lyrics already written. But the songs didn’t exist and the band was not going to be playing for a period of time, it was obvious. So I put together about a dozen sets of lyrics and sent them out to specific composers or musicians that I liked working with. I would send them one or two things to read and choose from.

And miraculously, people started to do it. It surprises me. Not everybody did it, but most people did. And again, you know, because of the pandemic, people had time. So somebody could sit and work on a song for hours that they might not have been able to do in their real life. I certainly benefited from that. So the songs started to come in, and I had access to the ESS studios, where we’ve done a bunch of recording. It was very quickly problematic to get a whole band of people together at the studio at the same time to do any recording. I was interested in the more bare-bones arrangements anyway. So if I was going to make a record that was not a band record, what would that feel like?

  • Stephanie Rearick wrote “The Hook” for Thrifty.

Stephanie Rearick did a piano track for her song [“The Hook”], and I had that piano track and I agreed to the piano track, but there was no variation possible. I couldn’t remix it or alter it very much. So I had to learn how to sing it to the track. And sometimes it was very much in the moment, and that was interesting and it was hard. I worked pretty closely with Ralph Loza, who was the engineer on that whole record. He’s pretty much a technological wonder, and he can do things that most people can’t do, or at least I can’t do.

The idea of writing with other people always intrigued me pre-pandemic and always will. I’ve now written lots of single one-off experiments with people over the past four or five years. And this was the most complete experience I had of that.  v