Live Review

American Music Festival - FitzGerald's (Berwyn, IL)

American Music Festival on December 31, 1969

Snapshots from the annual Fourth of July celebration of the United States of Roots Rock: As hundreds of sweaty fans pack this rustic roadhouse in the unlikely suburb of Berwyn, Illinois (with at least a hundred more waiting in line outside the club), Robbie Fulks asks the FitzGerald's faithful to ponder the musical question: "What's American music without AC/DC?" After pulverizing the Australian band's "Girls Got Rhythm" to tumultuous response, he later pays similar homage to Michael Jackson with "Billie Jean". Drawing on almost 70 years of musical experience as a band, Louisiana's Hackberry Ramblers defy tradition by transforming the likes of "Johnny B. Goode" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" into Cajun two-steps. Multi-instrumentalist Edward Duhon, a spry 90 years old, hasn't lost a lick. (Before the set, drummer Ben Sandmel advises a friend to stick around for the flashpots on the encore of "Stairway To Breaux Bridge".) The other end of the generational divide finds the young and hungry Mike Plume Band fusing the twin inspirations of Springsteen and Earle -- as if Rosalita were a denizen of Guitar Town -- with the go-for-the-throat urgency of a thrashabilly band. "Play 'Copperhead Road'," shouts someone from the crowd. "We could play every Steve Earle song ever written," responds Plume. "Just not tonight". A Rock and Roll Hall of Famer returning full circle to coffeehouse folk, John Sebastian demonstrates the influence of Mississippi John Hurt's "Lovin' Spoonful" on his own band's "Lovin' You", and reveals the New Orleans inspiration of Huey "Piano" Smith on "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?". Amid the afternoon crowd, an appreciative Marcia Ball says that she has to get Sebastian's autograph for her son, who has a jug band in Austin. Sebastian's '60s vocal lilt with the Lovin' Spoonful is now little more than a monotone rasp, but if you believe in magic, it doesn't seem to matter. Eight hours later, Ball sings "Louisiana, they're gonna wash us away," the Randy Newman lyric that seems all the more apropos as the rain pounds the performance tent outside the club. Few of the fans who are getting drenched seem concerned about much beyond ordering their next beer. At the same time Ball is serenading the outdoors downpour, Alejandro Escovedo is holding court inside the club. In the midst of previewing most of the material from his next album, A Man Under The Influence, he calls Chicago-via-England transplant Jon Langford from the audience to the stage. Explaining that the two formerly had a band together in the '70s called Slade (until Escovedo refused to wear the high boots) and proclaiming themselves lovers with a sloppy kiss, they launch into a duet of "Evening Gown", written (for them, they insist) by noted honky-tonker Mick Jagger. Meanwhile, the musical equivalent of "Where Waldo?" finds multi-instrumentalist Oliver Steck somehow insinuating himself into practically every performance -- supplying a little continental accordion here, some Tijuana Brass trumpet there. None of the audience seems to know him; none of the musicians seem to mind. By fest's end, he's earned most valuable player status. So much for musical expectation and categorical convention. For roots rock, the annual four-day FitzGerald's bash functions as a State of the Union barometer, a festival in which hardy perennials such as Joe Ely and Dave Alvin (whose "American Music" remains this mythic nation's anthem) share bills with emerging firebrands like Canada's Plume. It's an event where music which doesn't fit anywhere else -- like that of the Red Elvises, wacky Iron Curtain emigres who give the very notion of musical Americana a surrealistic spin -- fits just fine. It's hard to imagine a more raucously vibrant celebration that remains true to the musical spirit of Independence Day. "In terms of getting a kick from an audience, this is like the top 5 percent when you hit that stage," said Bill Kirchen, guitar flamethrower and Commander Cody alumnus. "I think that Bill FitzGerald and his people really love what they do, and they've earned the respect of both the artist and the audience. It's like if he's putting it on, I'm gonna be there." From the stage, Ely called FitzGerald's "my home away from home," a tribute to a club that has defied considerable odds in terms of longevity, geography and professional experience. It's rare enough for a club to last 20 years and be going stronger than ever, but even more surprising that such a place should exist in the blue-collar, proudly unfashionable suburb of Berwyn and be run by a former housepainter who gambled that all he loved about going out and hearing bands could compensate for what little he knew about running a nightclub. The first Fourth of July fest was a spur-of-the-moment affair, when FitzGerald took a chance on an unsigned, little-known guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan on a weekend pairing with septuagenarian Chicago jazz pianist Art Hodes, and decided to serve hot dogs for a holiday picnic. The next year, a visit to Jazzfest in New Orleans inspired Bill to book Clifton Chenier (who made his first Chicago-area appearance in 25 years at the club) and add the outdoor tent over the parking lot to have two stages operating at once. Subsequent visits to South by Southwest have given the FitzGerald's fest a decidedly Texas spin, with as many as half the acts on any given year hailing from Austin. "The biggest challenge is to mix it up," explained FitzGerald. "To add some new elements every year, but to keep the artists who are so strongly identified with the club." To that end, it would hardly be a festival without Marcia Ball (whose early booking by FitzGerald opened a pipeline to all sorts of Texas and Louisiana talent), but it's equally important for the event to host artists such as Gurf Morlix (playing only his second gig under his own name, after years as Lucinda Williams' guitarist and co-producer), and to extend the lineup to encompass everything from the jug-band revivalism of Sebastian to the hard-rocking populism of former Iron City Houserocker Joe Grushecky. When FitzGerald's began, there was no alt-country bandwagon, and, to this day, any trend that is likely to be the "next best thing" is just as likely to escape the club's notice. Yet when a fan sees the fervent response given the livewire performance by Fulks or the respect accorded the boundary-breaking music of the always adventurous Escovedo, it's hard to imagine an artist, an audience and a club asking anything more from each other than this. "I wish we could all just jump in one big ol' station wagon about three blocks long," says Joe Ely, "and drive down to Mexico together."