American Music Festival – FitzGerald’s (Berwyn, IL)
Not far from Grand Detour, Illinois — where the Rock River winds in, yes, a grand detour near the first workshop of John Deere — is the small town of Dixon (pop. 15,144), the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan. Dixon has a kinder, gentler celebrity as the home of an annual petunia festival, and it’s to that event the Chicago area owes the annual American Music Festival, now in its 16th year at the suburban nightclub FitzGerald’s.
“I’ve always liked small-town festivals,” club owner Bill Fitzgerald says, “like the Petunia Festival in Dixon — beer tent, polka bands. I always thought it was a really nice scene; fireworks and flags.” So when Fitzgerald and his dad took over the venerable Hunt Club in the west Chicago borough of Berwyn in the early ’80s, they crowned their first year with a music festival over July Fourth weekend. Earlier that same year, Fitzgerald had made his first visit to the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans, a trip that left an indelible impression on the musical direction of his own festival. The grand detour at FitzGerald’s followed a different River: Though their festival would Rock, it would also roll with the rhythms of the Mississippi.
This year’s American Music Festival, with music on both indoor and outdoor stages, opened Wednesday, July 2, with sets by regional favorites Paul Cebar & the Milwaukeeans, the Marcia Ball Band, and Bo Ramsey. Capping the night was an all-star jam band, Tiny Town, featuring Tommy Malone and Johnny Ray Allen of the Subdudes with Pat McLaughlin, Ken Blevins, Shawn Colvin and Sonny Landreth.
More local bands opened Thursday; then genteel old timers the Hadley J. Castille Cajun band traded a pair of sets with the hyper-zydeco Terrance Simien. Castille’s classic lo-fi two-steps inspired many a daddy to take his little girl for a twirl on the dance floor. Simien, by contrast, put out an energetic mix of zydeco, blues and soul, teasing fans with silvery Mardi Gras beads almost from the opening bars of his sweat-drenched set.
Indoors, Sonny Burgess kept the rockabilly faith he’s proselytized for 40 years, abetted by two acolytes lately generating their own following: guitarist Tim Carroll and bassist Duane Jarvis. Following Burgess were the Cicadas, comprising Rodney Crowell, Steuart Smith, Vince Santoro and Michael Rhodes.
Thursday closed with another appearance by Marcia Ball. In her tasteful red sheath and heels, jet hair distinguished by a shock of white, she hammered out honky-tonk boogie-woogie like some Junior League Jerry Lee Lewis, her enviable cheekbones wrapped around a Bayou growl. Those left standing were wide awake but exhausted by the end of her two-hour set.
Friday’s fireworks lifted off with an Elvis tribute in recognition of the 20th anniversary of Presley’s death, complete with a seven-piece orchestra in the Las Vegas convention mode. Athens, Georgia, band the Vidalias then played indoors two sets; Mel Melton, a sometimes Cajun chef, held down the tent in between.
Cajun food, in fact, was available throughout the Festival, offering enough variety to keep everyone but the strictest vegetarians happy. Especially tasty were the smoked duck gumbo and the heavenly creamy Crawfish Monica over noodles — inexpensive and almost as fresh-tasting at 1 a.m. as at 5 p.m. Popular with value-conscious musicians was the very overstuffed Cochon d’Lait roast pork sandwich with lots and lots of Louisiana hot sauce.
Steve Forbert appeared next inside with a full band wryly named the Next Big Thing. An exceptional showman, Forbert struggled a bit to involve the 6-7 p.m. crowd, which seemed unusually talkative and unfamiliar with most of his material. But by the end of his set he was left with a core of true believers, with whom he made fearlessly direct and warm eye contact, and was rewarded by their joining him on “The American in Me”.
The glossy soul patina of Jimmy LaFave’s substitute keyboard player sounded distractingly out-of-place except on the blues shuffles, where it seemed a natural choice. “Walk Away Renee” was the runaway highlight of the set, but hearing the Independence Day crowd sing along on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” was better than fireworks.
Fans present for the Old 97’s, who followed fellow Texan LaFave, clearly had come especially to see this band, and they packed close to the stage to feed off their energy. There was plenty for them and all the rest of Berwyn, if not Cook and the collar counties. By the end of their set, the Old 97’s were playing to a bar packed with fans of the next act, Ronnie Dawson (another fellow Texan). Driven by the stunning power and range of Lisa Pankratz’s drumming, Dawson closed Friday night with raunchy, fun rock ‘n’ roll like it was before people started thinking about it much.
Early Saturday afternoon featured the Chicago Salty Dogs, 1949 vintage traditional jazz players who were Hunt Club regulars. Inside, newcomer Anna Fermin overcame her band to win the crowd with her last five songs. Her earnest, confident phrasing, and a voice combining a little Iris Dement tremolo with a lot of Tammy Wynette throatiness, had everyone asking who she was.
Next, Robbie Fulks turned in a relaxed and focused set, easily engaging the crowd with between-song banter, among other things, quoting Friedrich Nietzsche. His unusually spirited delivery of “Fuck This Town”, which he dedicated to Neal Coty, was punctuated by aerobic running in place. On the next song he broke a string and changed it without missing a beat.
Young Mercury Records darling Neal Coty was up next, performing with the brio and ability that could make him fly. One might only wish to hear less about his songs between them; they detail so touchingly the aching insecurity he obscures with resigned good humor. Most endearing was the sheer ambition of his set-closing “Hey Joe”, on which the melodrama of his delivery rivaled even Judy Garland’s.
The Hackberry Ramblers’ old-time Cajun set, shot with hot zydeco, was a family highlight and probably best represented town-square spirit. Inside, the Skeletons attracted the festival’s first completely full house. Lou Whitney’s unusually edgy humor detonated this Skeletons show, the band fresh from a less-than-gangbusters tour behind a praiseworthy new release. The set exploded with fun and surprises, including Syd Straw covering two Ramones songs accompanied on drums by Bobby Lloyd Hicks’ 13 year-old son, Brian, who beat the hell out of them. Joe Terry upped the antics by jumping to the top of his keyboards for an inspired foot solo on the set closer.
Into the frenzied good-time vibe left by the Skeletons strutted the profound wisdom, wit and width of Candye Kane, belting feel-good blues from the proverbial heart of gold. Teeny tiny heels and a righteous crown bookended the considerable self she bears with pride, as you should yours, she lets you know. It’s hard to imagine she could be more fun if she popped out of a cake.
Most often seen recently playing acoustic, Dave Alvin closed this year’s American Music Festival with a full stage show that animated even enfeebled four-day festival veterans. In the encore, Brian Hicks returned on drums, as did Kane, Terry, Straw, and Skeletons guitarist D. Clinton Thompson. Kane favored Alvin, her producer, by dropping to her knees during his guitar solo to offer at least thanks, closing her contribution with a rousing keyboard duo involving her abundant bosoms. Somehow, Whitley followed her and finally brought things down altogether with “You Girls Goin’ South?” — about the only question left unanswered as Bill Fitzgerald and the club’s waitresses joined the crowd throwing hundreds of cocktail napkins in the air.
“It seems like in the last three or four years, [the Festival has] galvanized and become a really well-known event,” Fitzgerald said, adding, “I get calls from all over the country.” The true measure, though, is that this year, for the first time, he also got Beatle Bob — all four days.