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In The Flesh

Live Review and Photo Gallery: American Music Festival – FitzGerald’s • Berwyn

| July 5, 2023

Photo courtesy of FitzGerald’s

American Music Festival

FitzGerald’s

June 30 – July 3

Berwyn, IL

Reviewed by William Tokash

Photos from Day One, Three, and Four by Curt Baran

FitzGerald’s iconic American Music Festival in Berwyn, commenced on 4th of July weekend, celebrating its 40th year, making it one of the longest-running and storied music festivals in the country. The AMF could be the post- pandemic comeback festival in its own right. Owner Will Duncan purchased the venue from Bill and Kate Fitzgerald just days ahead of the pandemic lockdown in 2020. Now that’s timing (sarcasm). This year’s advance tickets sold-out for the first time ever. Ticket sales were undoubtedly bolstered by headliners Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, who kicked off the first two days of the four-day extravaganza.

The addition of these two high-profile artists, along with headliner Dave Alvin & the Guilty Ones on Sunday, seems symbolic. Over the last 40-plus years, these brilliant artists have each defied expectations and challenged pre-conceptions in their own manner to help define modern, roots-based American Music. While their perseverance continues to confound the Music Industry Powers That Be, the AMF regular crowd doesn’t want or need labels. This year’s lineup continued to lean on the influential traditions of (Bill) Fitzgerald’s long-standing passion for Americana, country, blues, rockabilly, alternative country, folk, and New Orleans zydeco and brass bands but also tipped a hat to more diverse acts with jazz, soul and rhythm and blues influences.

American Music Fest, Day One

Gerald Dowd

The opening set in the nightclub Friday was led by a smooth set from local Chicago drummer Gerald Dowd, pitching in for LA country-soul artist Chris Pierce, who was just recently tagged to open for Neil Young in Neil’s first tour in four years. Gerald’s straight-up, hooky, “roll down the car windows” country rock delivered a soothing Eagles-y experience free from the ostentatious pomposity of the Eagles.

CJ Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band

Few artists better illustrate the “exhilaration” of a live performance more expansively than CJ Chenier. The son of the legendary Father of Zydeco Music, Clifton Chenier, CJ Chenier is a standing regular at the AMR for over 30 years and never fails to deliver his Louisiana juke joint Zydeco dance magic. CJ and his band members popped the clutch from the start of the set with “drag strip courage” and “bleach on their wheels.” When CJ left the stage on a snake line, he warned the sweat-drenched crowd that it was time to “get out there and check the heartbeats” with his genre-defining zydeco perfection.

Lucinda Williams

The Friday night crowd was awash in palpable anticipation of Lucinda’s set, which came on the 25th anniversary of the release of her game-changing Car Wheels on a Gravel Road album. Lucinda didn’t miss the opportunity to tap into the moment with a connoisseur’s set list with “Car Wheels…” and other early career favorites.

Lucinda’s style is etched in the coupling of the emotional vulnerability of her lyrics with her affecting vocal style. Emmylou Harris once quipped that Lucinda could “sing the chrome off a tailpipe,” while Bonnie Raitt once said her voice was “unique, truly American and drenched in raw grit and soul and vulnerability.” Friday’s set found her reconnecting with those aspects, given the passage of time and the challenges she’s faced since her stroke in 2020, which was heart-wrenching and engaging.

Highlights of the set included a three-peat sequence for the ages: “Crescent City,” a wonderfully touching song about family nostalgia; “Pineola,” a stark recounting of the mind-numbing despair about dealing with suicide; and the aforementioned “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road;” lovingly delivered 25-years to the day. Lucinda then followed up with her ode to Blaze Foley, “Drunken Angel,” and “Changed the Locks,” which kept the audience enthralled.

Mid-set, text threads then lit up that Steve Earle was in the house, and he joined Lucinda to recap her duet guest appearance on “You’re Still Standing There” from Steve’s 1996 album I Feel Alright. After finishing, Steve strutted off and said, “Lucinda Fuckin’ Williams, y’all,” which essentially and concisely captured the spirit of the crowd at that point.

This is the first time I’ve seen Lucinda since her stroke and I was overwhelmed, frankly, with how she seems to have reconnected with her vocal delivery. Her use of the mike stand seemed two-fold now: it may help provide some support while she stands and sings while also helping her channel support from her adoring fans.

Texas Gentlemen

Well, as they often say in the Music Business, “You don’t want to go on after THAT act.” But after the Lucinda set, that challenge gauntlet was passed on to the Texas Gentlemen in the Nightclub to close out Night One and they did not disappoint.

The Texas Gentlemen are a Dallas-based collection of sidemen and session musicians on New West Records that rapidly turned up the throttle on a set that covered quite a bit of ground genre-wise. A first-listen recommendation a while back on a tip from a good music pal of mine left me thinking The Gentlemen seemed a bit too “pop noodle-y” for me. But like many bands, it’s hard to capture your essence in the studio “on tape.” The Texas Gentlemen’s adrenaline-fueled “southern country rock funk horns pop harmonies” bender of set left me thinking about a redo.

American Music Fest, Day Two

Los Gallos

Los Gallos is a Chicago-based, 7-piece ensemble that blended a mix of Mexican Cumbia, Norteño, and Bolero music with country, rock, and blues that is artfully cut from Los Lobos cloth. In 2019, Los Gallos had a single titled “Yeah Yeah Yeah” on Bloodshot Record’s 25th Anniversary compilation: Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots and now recently self-released a rollicking first full-length record. Los Gallos rolled out an exciting, wide-ranging set of foot-stompers, sad ballads, and toe-tappers that travailed the entire range of their eclectic influences.

Windy City Ramblers

The Chicago Windy City Ramblers, a non-profit brass band organization dedicated to the cultural development of New Orleans-style Jazz Brass Band and Second Line Culture, kicked off the Day Two Patio Schedule. The Ramblers are now hosting a fundraising series at FitzGerald’s this summer to raise money and awareness for childhood musical development. Their inspiring NPR Tiny Desk submittal captures the energy exuded during their set, which was capped with a rousing Second Line March around the AMF outdoor spaces.

The Local Honeys

The Local Honeys, a Kentucky-based duo that blends haunting, traditional folk guitar and banjo-based originals across old-timey classics and dusty covers across bone-chillingly beautiful harmonies, captivated the afternoon Sidebar crowd. The duo, whom I discovered on the influential W.B. Walker’s Old Sound Radio Show, has toured Europe with emerging country superstars Tyler Childers and Colter Wall.

The Local Honey’s focus is on poignant, inspiring lyrics and covers that highlight the struggles of their fellow working-class coal and rail industry Kentuckians dealing with “boom and bust” economic challenges and the brunt of the ongoing Opioid Epidemic.

Shinyribs

Austin-based Shinyribs stew a genre bouillabaisse of ingredients that include Texas blues, New Orleans R&B funk, and Memphis Soul coupled with ample portions of roots-rock, big band swing, and twang, all led by head chef and former Gourds frontman Kevin Russell. Kevin’s innovative songwriting, silky smooth voice, and captivating stage presence, best captured on East Texas Rust from their 2018 appearance on Austin City Limits, enthralled the afternoon Patio crowd with a wide range of gems from their 8-record discography.

Following up on a sold-out show earlier this year at FitzGerald’s earlier this year, highlights of the AMF set included a “James Brown Meets Swamp Soul” cover of “The Big Payback” and Shinyribs classics “Take Me to Lake Charles” and “Don’t Leave it Lie.” Get on the Shiny Ribs soul train now because no opportunity to see Shinyribs live should be missed.

Arlo McKinley

Arlo McKinley, another artist who I also first discovered on W.B. Walker’s Old Sound Radio Show, is an Ohio-based country singer/songwriter who was signed to John Prine’s Oh Boy Records in 2019. His first release, Die Midwestern, was met with critical acclaim, and his subsequent 2022 album on Oh Boy, This Mess We’re In, successfully avoided the singer/songwriter Sophomore Jinx.

Arlo’s gritty, country rock wall of sound style, coupled with his raw and emotional lyrics and plaintive vocals, mesmerized the early evening Nightclub crowd. Highlights of the set included the lyrical despair of Bag of Pills (..You want it, I can feel it, Got a bag of pills I’ve been dealing, So I can take you drinking..), the dejected poignance of This Damn Town; the rollicking Die Midwestern and an evocative cover of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game.

Steve Earle

Day Two headliner Steve Earle, the second half of the AMF Dynamic Trio of headliners, entertained the crowd with a two-plus hour set ripe with selections from his extraordinary repertoire. As his fans know, despite being an endearing and prolific songwriter in his own right, Steve never misses an opportunity to pay tribute to other great songwriters he loves. Steve kicked off the set by adding Shane McGowan to the long list of songwriters he admires with the Pogues’ “If I Should Fall from Grace with God.”

At its essence, Steve Earle is a storytelling connector. His passions focus on three consistent themes: shining a light on other songwriters he admires, overcoming addiction, and advocating for disadvantaged and oppressed classes of working people. On the songwriter side, in addition to Shane, Steve paid tribute to Jerry Jeff Walker in a rousing sing-along version of “Mr. Bojangles,” which was one of the first songs he learned and performed as a teen. Steve then spoke candidly, with gut-wrenching honesty, about his son Justin Townes Earle’saccidental death before launching into an emotional tribute cover of “Harlem River Blues.”

On the advocacy side, Steve did a chilling, fist-pumping rendition of “Its About Blood” from his Ghosts of West Virginia album, paying an emotional tribute to the 29 coal miners who perished at Upper Big Branch, WV, in 2010. And later in the set, he drew a hopeful connection between the end of political violence in Northern Ireland and the plight of Palestinian refugees with a stirring version of Jerusalem.

In between, Steve interspersed a slew of classics such as Someday, highlighting the malaise of small-town life, Transcendental Blues, articulating the challenges of emotional growth, and “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied.” Nearing the end of the set, Steve inspired his adoring hardcore fans by dedicating the show to the memory of the late WXRT on-air host and legend Lin Brehmer for saving his career early on by playing Guitar Town, helping salvage his career buoyed by XRT’s support.

American Music Fest, Day Three

Miss Tess

After a nearly daylong deluge that flooded the streets of Berwyn with eight inches of rain, I finally made it out to catch Miss Tess in the Sidebar. Miss Tess, from Nashville by way of Baltimore, Boston, and Brooklyn, knits a soulful mix of languid, western swing country ballads that defies categorization. Her blend of jazzy vocals, hooky pedal steel, guitar licks, and catchy melodies across tight songwriting entertained the slightly wet but eager crowd.

Jamie Wyatt

Jamie Wyatt is a Nashville-based outlaw country singer-songwriter who followed up her 2017 breakthrough Felony Blues with the Shooter Jennings-produced Neon Cross record in 2020, which has now landed her on tour with The Head and the Heart. Following a delayed start due to rain-related delays, Jamie captivated the nightclub crowd and kicked off the set with her sultry, heartfelt vocals paired with a blend of southern soul ballads and catchy, hard-rocking guitar-based outlaw jams.

Jamie’s songs are grounded in emotional vulnerability and an honest accounting of her transcendence from addiction, prison, and relapse. Beyond the strong lyrical content of her song structure, it’s her gorgeous, wide-ranging voice that resonated with the listeners. There were moments in the anthemic, Merle Haggard-inspired “Wasco (…Ain’t Nobody Gonna Tell Me Who to Love..)” hitting some stunning notes, and you could feel her confidence brimming. I had the feeling as an artist, despite the ample talent she already displays, that she is just getting started, like a baby chick fully pecking her way out of her artistic eggshell.

Logan Ledger

Logan Ledger is a countrypolitan-styled balladeer whose style passes on the string arrangements of the Nashville Sound while doubling down on vocal-forward, crisp, catchy songs that showcase his shimmering, near-operatic voice and range. His music is heavily influenced by, but not derived from, the early Nashville and Memphis crooners. It was not hard during his set to close your eyes and time travel back for a moment to a Sam Phillips-led Roy Orbison studio session at Sun Studio. And I don’t say that lightly.

Terrance Simien & the Zydeco Experience

Let’s face it, I am an unapologetic sucker for Zydeco Music, and Terrance Simien’s infectious, bead-tossing persona and “laissez les bons temps rouler” (aka “let the good ties roll”) style was the perfect backdrop for this late evening nightclub set. Backed by virtuosos across the board – the Berkleetrained horn section: Lance Ellis on sax and Curtis Watson on trumpet, Stan Chambers on bass, Ian Molinaro on drums and Danny William on keys, Terrance Simien and laid down another high-octane, sweat-flowing Zydeco dance extravaganza.

American Music Fest, Day Four

The Deslondes

The Deslondes are a New Orleans-based quintet with four singers and five songwriters who all pitch in to cast a foot-stompy web of tradition-bending Cosmic American country soul. Their repertoire ranges from toe-tapping, slowcore country ballads mixed in with up-tempo honkytonk and swamp rock-influenced bangers, all underpinned by hooky bass and organ fills, earthy harmonies, and poignant lyrics. The band’s stage presence during the set was artfully overseen by Lefty the dog, who supervised the set with laconic yawns and a late-set reconnaissance of the stage before settling in for a nap under the pedal steel guitar.

The Deslondes are a tight-knit band that is clearly comfortable with their “all-for-one style, which resulted in a delightfully entertaining mid-afternoon Patio set. Highlights included the insightful character piece South Dakota Wild One, the highway traffic blues of Less Honkin’ More Tonkin, the roadhouse twang of Hurricane Shakedown, the acceptance of a satisfying, creative life lived differently on Good to Go, and Yum Yum, a clever ode to a fine, homecooked southern smorgasbord. This band was clearly one of the highlights of the weekend for me.

Esther Rose

Esther Rose, who was wrapping up a tour with the Deslondes, is a Michigan-by-way-of-Orleans and New Mexico singer-songwriter whose fourth record Safe to Run was released earlier this year on New West Records. Esther brought her simple, hooky melodies woven into country dream pop structures, all overlaid with her angelic, otherworldly vocals to the late afternoon Sidebar crowd. Highlights of the set included the shared connections of Chet Baker and the poignant apprehension of the Safe to Run title track.

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers

I first saw former Bloodshot Records artist Sarah Shook & the Disarmers at the 2017 American Music Fest and have been an unabashed supporter since then. When I first reviewed 2018’s Bloodshot release Years, I highlighted the depth and breadth of the transcendence, vulnerability, and assertiveness in her lyrics coupled with her edgy, wonderfully gritty vocals. She’s only continued to grow as a songwriter and performer since then.

Sarah & the Disarmers electrified the late afternoon patio crowd with a fast-paced compendium of some of the best songs in her catalog. Highlights included the relationship confidencebuilding of “Good as Gold,” the 60s secret agent man vibe of “Talking to Myself,” the sultry apprehension of “Sidelong,” and the steely perseverance of “It Doesn’t Change Anything.” I remain just as excited as I was in 2017 when Bloodshot signed Sarah (she is currently signed to Abeyance Records) to give her a chance for her art to be heard because that journey has been well worth it for her listeners.

Dave Alvin and The Guilty Ones

Dave Alvin, a founding member of the Blasters with his brother Phil and the leading influence in country-punk-blues American music over the last forty-plus years, headlined the patio stage Sunday night. His headliner show signified his triumphant return to FitzGerald’s, a venue he clearly holds even more closely to his heart now following his challenging battle with cancer.  Dave admitted there were times he didn’t think he’d ever get back on the road, but he poignantly shared that targeting getting back to FitzGerald’s inspired his cancer recovery.

The set kicked off appropriately with a buzzsaw version of the Blasters’ epic American Music, backed by The Guilty Ones, comprised of Chris Miller on guitar, Brad Fordham on bass, and Lisa Pankratz on drums. The band proceeded to mow through songs that alternated between Dave’s sweet spots: deep, hard-rocking blues and country rock gems, highlighted by “Johnny Ace is Dead,” “Abilene,” “Out of Control”, and “Long White Cadillac.”

As many AMF regulars surely know, Dave and his brother Phil, as young teens, had their lives changed by sneaking out to the legendary Ash Grove venue in Los Angeles to see shows. It was there that they were heavily influenced by icons of blues, bluegrass, and folk, such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Joe Turner, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thornton, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, and Doc Watson. So, in a moment that won’t be lost to history, during the intro to Ash Grove, where he pays respects to those influences, Dave stated he holds FitzGerald’s on par with other historical venues like the Ash Grove in terms of venues with a sense of musical community that created a safe place to allow artists to be heard, create, loved, and respected.

Following that sentimental moment, Dave closed out the emotional set with his epic 4th of July and a tribute to his brother Phil (who is also dealing with health challenges) on “Marie Marie.” Dave quipped earlier on in the set that he asked his surgeon when he could get back on the road and tour after the surgery and the surgeon said ‘that that wouldn’t be happening,’ so Dave found a different surgeon. The raucous and affectionate crowd was certainly elated that he got a second opinion.

Dee Oh Gee

Dee Oh Gee, who closed out the fest, just might be the hardest rockin’ party bar band around. They exploded onto the stage before the exhausted, bleary-eyed remaining attendees with their custom blend of high-speed, ’70s rock and glam-inspired roadhouse wail, which has made them into an unparalleled live experience.

 

AMF Day One Gallery:

AMF Day Three

AMF Day Four

 

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