Lilly Hiatt at Fitzgerald’s Nightclub
While Hemingway might have been born just down the street, Fitzgerald’s was the namesake of the venue to host Ms. Lilly Hiatt Sept. 3 in support of her recent release Royal Blue. The sprawling complex made up of two bars, a beer garden and restaurant sits on the edge of Oak Park and Berwyn in a smart little suburb of Chicago. It appears rather unassuming from the exterior but Fitzgerald’s was surprisingly active despite an initial setback.
The venue is perhaps best known from The Color of Money. Another film partially shot there, A League of Their Own, means the stage at a previous point hosted the likes of Madonna. The trivia was interesting and there was plenty of time to become familiar with the staff due to an early frustration. Hiatt’s touring van busted a flat just outside the city and it was announced to the meager audience for opener Matt Francis Andersen that there would be a short delay.
But such a large venue provided plenty of space to get lost in, and it seemed Ms. Hiatt’s wouldn’t be the only show that night. At Fitzgerald’s auxiliary pub brother’s Bill and Paddy Houlihan tell jokes and craic on the entertainment industry for their Irish-American themed radio hour (WSBC 1240 am, WCFJ 1470 am) in front of a live crowd. Second City alumni, the brothers are the witty sort of personalities last seen during the golden age of radio, unscripted yet on point it was hard not to draw comparisons between their efforts with DIY media and many of the groups printed across the pages of No Depression.
Despite the setback, the timing worked well. Right as the Houlihan brothers brought their show to a close Matt Francis Andersen launched into his set next door. Local talent Andersen is best known for the song “Blue Line,” which won the 2012 American Songwriter publication’s lyric contest. Andersen is an interesting sort, a new school folkie, he isn’t afraid to match finger picking to appeal. His unlikely past as a sport fishing guide figured prominently across his set. Songs like “Honey Hole,” delivered elements of the pastoral and natural. Invoking north woods imagery the song would be as well received in country western juke joint circles as the coffee house. By mixing the beauty of nature between songs about a hard luck love life, his style of solo songwriter material would fit finely in your record collection somewhere between Scott Nolan and David Dondero.
Andersen’s set went long to accommodate Hiatt’s misfortune, but at long last the band arrived. The modest attendance had swollen and a cheer arose as Lilly Hiatt and her crack backing group took stage. Ms. Hiatt offered a short apology and thanked the audience for their patience before launching into “Off Track.” There’s something in Hiatt’s voice that relates a mote of sadness which keeps lines like, “Tell me when you get a grip,” from the realm of pedantic rhetoric that is so popular these days, and while the tempo of the song relates strength, the lyrical content and vocal delivery are at contrast. Indeed, across Hiatt’s recent release ‘Royal Blue,’ one senses there’s a story being told at face value, but another lingers just below the surface. It could be said there are songs within the songs, some message hidden in the tonal despair delivered over “Everything’s just great!” lyrics.
Hiatt is disparagingly lovely, and when she opens her mouth to sing songs about leaving home, or cussing God, or the joy and confusion of young love it’s hard not to get pulled into the emotion she places into her vocals. One wants to remain analytical, to lump Hiatt in with all the other pretty young talent surfacing out of Nashville, but it’s impossible to remain aloof across tracks like, “Jesus Would Have Let Me Pick the Restaurant,” or first album favorite “Three Days.” And her choice of backing musicians for this tour hasn’t hurt her performance at all. Though Hiatt may be in front, telling jokes and wooing the audience, there’s little doubt session drummer Jon Radford is running the show quietly from the rear. Leading the group in and out, suggesting numbers and directing the sound guy simultaneously Radford’s metronomic, flawless percussion provided a heartbeat to all the love songs and angsty propulsion to the reckless youth inclusions. Radford a take no shit drummer, one who performs with joy, but isn’t afraid to butt heads on the topic of music while matching you shot for shot after the show. Guitarist Reed McMillan should equally be noted, whether spinning melody around Hiatt’s vocals and bassists Rob’t Hudson’s driving rhythms, or else finger picking chord progressions he never stole the spotlight away despite the ease with which it could have been accomplished.
Professionals the lot, Hiatt and company brought a touch of the up and coming Nashville scene to the harsh empire that is Chicago. If NYC is all talk, and LA all show, Chicago is nothing but work, and the northern audiences aren’t the type to patronize. Late arrival could have spelt doom for Hiatt had the group performed poorly, however as the night wore on it became apparent Hiatt herself was the only one still concerned with the fact. Tracks from the recent ‘Royal Blue,’ figured heavily, but even those from her first album ‘Let Down,’ saw the audience singing along, tapping feet and applauding graciously. And while Chicago is about the last town you’d expect to see bar goers pair off to two-step, Hiatt and co were as warmly accepted as any four piece native act.