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Reviewed: American Music Festival – FitzGerald’s • Berwyn

| July 6, 2022

 

C.J. Chenier (Photo: William Tokash)

 

American Music Festival

FitzGerald’s

July 1-4

Berwyn, IL

Reviewed by William Tokash

Photos from Day Four by Curt Baran

FitzGerald’s legendary American Music Festival returned to Berwyn this 4th of July weekend following a 2-year Covid-induced hiatus with one of the most diverse musical lineups this venerable fest has seen in its 39-year history. This year’s AMF, the first with new proprietor Will Duncan at the helm, features 60 musical acts with roots still spun from the influential web of Bill and Kate Fitzgerald’s longstanding support and passion for Americana, country, blues, rockabilly, alternative country, folk, and New Orleans zydeco and brass bands.

Over the years, the AMF has become the go-to summer music destination experience for music fans of these genres. The Day One crowd on a sold-out Friday night was supported by perfect weather and enhanced by acclaimed restaurateur John Manion’s on-premise Babygold Barbecue delicacies. Here are some of the highlights.

American Music Fest, Day One

Michelle Billingsley

Michelle Billingsley is a stalwart of the local Chicago honky tonk scene whose angelic, wide-ranging vocal style evokes shades of Emmylou Harris with a smidge of Neko Case. Featuring cuts from her latest record, Not the Marrying Kind, her straight-up timeless sound captivated the fans on the newly remodeled Side Bar stage. Michelle’s set again supports my take that tasty pedal steel guitar licks represent the only scientifically-proven form of time travel.

S.G. Goodman

S.G. Goodman’s main stage set simmered with bleak, heartfelt lyrics, sparse song constructs, and a vocal style that exploded into a sort of dreamy, folk-country shoegaze experience that was hands-down the highlight of Day 1. Frankly, her set left me speechless. Coupled with her dead-pan, bitingly sarcastic stage banter, and story-telling, her set highlights one of the best aspects of the AMF over the years. If you dig in deep to every set across the three-stage setup over the 4-day lineup, you will undoubtedly find one or two new artists that change your world.

Aaron Lee Tasjan

Aaron Lee Tasjan’s blend of space-age and hippie twang is built on a platform of big-ass pop hooks and earnest witty lyrics. His set blended his myriad influences into a bouillabaisse of extraordinarily tuneful psychedelic pop that sounded fresh and inviting. What I wouldn’t give to spend an evening with him spinning songs from his record collection!

Son Volt

Legendary alt-country genre pioneers Son Volt’s straight-up, no-frills approach highlights Jay Farrar’s insightful songwriting and commitment to honest, hard-rocking music. Like a warm summer night’s drive with a cold beer popped and the windows down, their music enthralled the sweat-drenched fans on the Main Stage. With a set that drew early on from more recent releases but then, later on, drove home the gold-standard hits from the 90s, Son Volt has never sounded better.

The Waco Brothers

Chicago’s favorite barrelhouse brawlers delivered their patented, piledriving wall of Chicago-style alt pub rock to close out the evening in the nightclub. This set served as a perfect bridge from the AMF past to the present, with heartfelt shout-outs by lead Waco Brother Jon Langford to newcomer Will Duncan and Bill and Kate Fitzgerald, who were in attendance.

American Music Fest, Day Two

Sarah Borges (Photo William Tokash)

The capacity crowd for Day two was treated again to a lineup packed with a full suite of signature AMF American music-styled bands. The weather was perfect, and the musical performances rose to the occasion. Here are some of the Day two highlights.

Fox Crossing Stringband

The all-female, Chicago-based Fox Crossing Stringband have established themselves as regulars at the top bluegrass festivals, and after a first listen, their success is no surprise. Their beautiful harmonies laid down against a set of bluegrass standard covers and originals made these self-described foxy bluegrass ladies the perfect start to Day 2.

Chicago Farmer & the Fieldnotes

Cody Dickoff, aka Chicago Farmer, blends rural farm-town sensibilities into working-class songs that are provocative and entertaining. Joining him on his full band setup were some Soggy Mountain-looking boys known as the Fieldnotes, who complimented Cody’s vocals with a genre-bending blend of backup support steeped in a folky, honky tonk feel. Highlights of the set included a folk-country grunge string-out of Hank Williams’s Ramblin’ Man and the wry criticisms about attending a big country show selling$13 beer.

Daddy Long Legs

Mike “Shakey” Elliott blasted onto the mid-day Main Stage like Clarence Worley’s Elvis apparition from True Romance on the tail end of a three-day bender. Daddy Long Legs channeled their rootsy, bluesy energy through a filter of JSBX and Scott H. Biram’s fire and passion. The set cut through the crowd like a bush hog through weedy overgrowths along a Mississippi country road.

Tre Burt

Frankly, I lost focus mid-afternoon. My head was spinning a bit, given all the good bands I had not heard before playing simultaneously. I only caught the tail end of Tre Burt’s set in the Side Bar. Only the second artist – in addition to Kelsey Waldon – signed to Oh Boy Records in the last 15 years, I won’t miss his thoughtful songwriting and finger-pickin’ brilliance the next time he comes to Chicago.

Eilen Jewell

Eilen Jewell is a Boise, ID-based songwriter whose blend of swampy, CCR-inspired blues-country-folk feels both familiar and original. Her jaw-dropping vocal styling and songcraft connected with the late afternoon Night Club attendees. She’s eight records into her career, so shame on me for not finding out about her sooner. Most of the audience’s heart melted mid-set when Eilen’s young daughter, Mavis, sat in on a couple of songs on maracas.

Lily Hiatt

Lily Hiatt’s grit, passion, and sultry vocals, strewn across a slightly twang-tinged onslaught of hooky indy rockers, really connected with the late afternoon crowd on the Main Stage. She rocked much harder than I anticipated, and I kept hearing fragments of Stooges bass lines and Ron Asheton guitar licks subtly wrapped into some of the rockers toward the end of the set.

The Claudettes

The Claudettes are an intriguing band that might be the hardest AMF band so far to describe. The band kept taking more entertaining turns when the velvety, soulful vocals started to coagulate across Nawlins-meets-Nick Waterhouse tube amp analog tape R&B riffs.

Michael McDermott

Chicago-based Michael McDermott’s thoughtful lyrics and anthemic choruses evoke a kaleidoscope of life’s ups and downs and hopes and dreams. With songs wrapped around his soulful vocal style, his Midwestern, Springsteen-esque set was well-received by a packed nightclub of true believers. How is this guy not a big star?

Rebirth Brass Band

The legendary funky brass of New Orlean’s Rebirth Brass Band has been keeping New Orleans music on the map for close to 40 years. Their scintillating main stage set reminded me of my desire to be reincarnated as a Nawlins brass (or Memphis Horn’s soul) trombone player.

Sarah Borges 

Boston’s Sarah Borges’ legendary mix of hooky, emo/country/punk rockers has established her as an “artists’ artist” on the Americana scene. Fueled by her charismatic vocals, hooky songs, and home-spun stage persona, the late evening nightclub crowd – who may have been bordering on exhaustion at that point – was enthralled.

 

American Music Fest, Day Three

Day three was met with even better weather and a raucous crowd hungry to sample the good eats and the diverse lineup of American music artists. Here are some of the Day 3 highlights:

Kevin Galloway

Former Uncle Lucius front man Kevin Galloway’s straight-up, southern rock-influenced country-soul ballads were accentuated by his husky, whiskey-stained vocals and a sincere depth of lyrical emotion. It seems he’s traveled the backroads of despair and heartbreak a time or two.

Lydia Loveless

Former Bloodshot Records artist Lydia Loveless’s afternoon main stage featured her signature style – deeply testimonial songs with twangy-hooky pop melodies and sing-along choruses – that draw inspiration from her every ache and pain. The supportive crowd shared in the catharsis, especially on the particularly moving “When You’re Goneand the stark haunting rhythms on “Say My Name.”

Beth Bombara

St. Louis-based Beth Bombara blends her catchy country soul songs inspired by a Laurel Canyon-esque country-rock vibe into a quite-satisfying sound. Mixing in songs from Evergreen, her latest release, and an occasional strung-out mini-jam, her set left the early evening crowd in a fine mood.

C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band

C.J. Chenier, son of the Father of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, and the Red Hot Louisiana Band have been a staple at the American Music Fest for over 30 years, consistently pumping out dance-crazy, high-octane live shows. It was no surprise to long-time supporters of Fitzgerald’s when C.J. admitted that “this place is special: a home away from home for us” mid-way through the set. When C.J. declared you don’t go for a Sunday drive without at least a half-pint of Crown Royal and some Seagram’s Gin to boot, the crowd was strapped in and ready.

DeeOhGee

Dee OhGee – formerly known as the Blackfoot Gypsies – blasted onto the Night Club stage with their high-speed glam rock-inspired twangy country R&B sound, making them an unparalleled live experience. If you envision a mix of the Black Crowes with a dose of Flying Burrito Bros – at 45 RPM – and on a caffeine bender, you’d be about right.

Alejandro Escovedo

When legendary punk rock/roots/alt-country pioneer Alejandro Escovedo closed out the evening with a Main Stage career-spanning set drawing on his diverse influences, it felt like a homecoming. Admitting that this was one of the first shows since the Pandemic, he openly reminisced about his memories here – his Bloodshot Records, Man Under the Influence Release Party – and his long history of memories created at FitzGerald’s. In a particularly touching nod to new owner Will Duncan, Alejandro acknowledged the significance of Will’s understanding of the historical importance of the venue. The crowd was right with him.

 

American Music Fest, Day Four

The 4th and final of FitzGerald’s American Music Festival on the 4th of July was met with a slightly smaller holiday crowd that endured a couple of rain showers. But the weather didn’t appear to dampen the spirit of the fans anxious to experience the final day’s lineup. Here are some of the Day 4 highlights:

Rachel Baiman

Rachel Baiman, originally from Oak Park, IL, but now based in Nashville, is an Americana singer-songwriter whose folksy, old-timey-inspired songs are wrapped around her sincere, high lonesome vocals and multi-instrumental virtuosity. As an acknowledged veteran of FITZGERALDS, Rachel clearly was touched by her first chance to play the AMF and the songs from her Cycles record clearly resonated with the early afternoon Night Club crowd.

Nathan Graham

Chicago born and bred, Nathan Graham couples rootsy, blues-inspired ballads with extraordinary guitar skills, a deep, soulful, gravelly baritone, and poignant lyrics. After years of touring as a guitar-for-hire, he’s now breaking out on his own as a solo performer. Based on Day 4’s late afternoon Nigh Club set, it is clear that Nathan is way closer than 20 feet from stardom.

Terrance Simeon & the Zydeco Experience 

Blessed with an infectious smile and a similarly contagious “laissez les bons temps rouler” personality, two-time Grammy winner Terrance Simeon and the boys lay down the Zydeco with an unparalleled degree of virtuosity and a gob-smacking level of pure joy. With every mug to the crowd, Terrance seems to be trying to let us in on his secret: “can y’all really believe I get paid to have this much fun with y’all right here in this moment?”

Robbie Fulks

Robbie Fulks is gifted with a short creative attention span. After previously touring with Linda Gail Lewis (Jerry Lee’s sister) and legendary Bakersfield guitarist Redd Volkaert, Robbie shows up at the AMF on Day 4 backed by a three-piece gospel choir. Pulling a wide range of the songs in his full repertoire into some new constructs led to an unpredictable and entertaining early evening Main Stage set. He just seems like he’s afraid to bore himself!

North Mississippi Allstars

The North Mississippi Allstars’ unwavering respect for the hypnotic, Hill Country juke joint dance blues of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside still inspires their music.  But this is no “oldies” cover act, y’all. Luther and Cody Dickinson, sons of the late Memphis recording and producing legend Jim Dickinson, channel their father’s fearless creativity, constantly taking their music across new southern rock boundaries. Their sweaty and gritty closing set left the main stage throng focused on rehydrating in real-time.

 

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