Berwyn’s ‘Bonnaroo’ sets the bar for music festivals
BERWYN – The annual American Music Festival held at FitzGerald’s night club in Berwyn isn’t as big as Woodstock. While it doesn’t draw a half-million people into town for its four-day run, it also doesn’t have mud that reaches over the ankle.
But most importantly, it does have enough toilets and tents, Cajun-influenced cuisine and roots music to go around.
Owner Bill FitzGerald definitely got the whole festival thing right, long before there ever was a Bonnarroo.
From today through Saturday, FitzGerald’s will celebrate its 33rd annual American Music Festival, where more than 40 bands will play on three different stages. It got its humble start in 1981, a year after Bill, his father, Chris, and his brother, Chris Jr., opened the club in 1980.
“We count 1981 as our first celebration of the Fourth,” FitzGerald said. “We kind of boxed out the weekend. We had hot dogs and brats, that kind of thing. But we had an icon play on that Friday: Stevie Ray Vaughn.”
Traditional jazz followed with the likes of Art Hoades and other jazz greats, but the second year made it truly a festival, FitzGerald said.
The clue to what separated the festival from others can be found in its name: the American Music Festival. This is where American roots music is honored. Country, folk, rockabilly, Cajun, blues, jazz – one can get a taste of it all in one day at the festival.
FitzGerald’s has a reputation. Don’t look for the acts that one hears ad nauseum on FM radio. This is a venue for people of all ages with a discerning taste in music.
It can be argued that FitzGerald’s introduced the Chicago area to the likes of Texas songwriter, rocker and balladeer Joe Ely, or Alejandro Escovedo, The Skeletons or Marcia Ball. Anyone who plays Cajun music or zydeco can thank FitzGerald for introducing it to the residents of Chicago. He does the booking for all of the club’s entertainment.
“Marcia Ball said this is her favorite big festival in a small space,” FitzGerald said. “I think our lineup rivals Taste of Chicago or some of these other events. It reflects what we do throughout the year here. And now it’s sort of a reflection of what we’ve been doing for 30 years.”
Many of the same acts have returned over the past 33 years for many reasons, FitzGerald said.
“The feeling I get is that when the people play the festival, they step it up a bit,” he said. “They’re getting a chance to play for their fans, but a lot of others as well. Our crowd is a music loving crowd. And a lot of the acts know each other, like sitting in with each other.”
The second year of the festival became the foundation of what it is today. They decided to start the festival on a Tuesday and run through the weekend. They got permission from the city to put up a large circus tent to keep the outdoor stage audience dry.
FitzGerald said he has no idea how many different bands or acts he has hired to perform at the club.
“But I got to think it’s close to a thousand,” he said.
As far as festivalgoers, he figures at least 90,000.
Each year, the festival draws up to 3,000 people into the residential area Roosevelt Road cuts through. That’s a lot of vehicles looking for place to park. There’s also the issue of live bands playing outside long into the night. FitzGerald said there have been complaints here and there, but the club does what it can to secure legitimate parking for the festival.
“The city has been very supportive. Our aldermen and some of the residents have said they enjoy it; they can hear the music while sitting in their backyards,” FitzGerald said.
From a business standpoint, the festival has many benefits, said Tony Griffin, executive director of the Berwyn Development Corp.
“It brings new people to Berwyn to experience Berwyn,” Griffin said. “[FitzGerald’s] is a great entertainment venue. It brings revenue to Berwyn from those people who are shopping or dining while they are here.”
Griffin said he has attended three of the festivals since moving back to Berwyn five years ago. He added he has friends throughout the area who know Berwyn through the Festival.
“It really is just a great annual event they put on there,” he said.
As for his own taste in music, Fitzgerald has an open mind.
“I like all kinds of music. I enjoy blues, rock, that’s what get’s me going,” he said. “I love it all. I can listen to traditional jazz then hear a Cajun band. I’m not much into the whole heavy metal thing, but I could probably try.”