Strummin' and frettin' at FitzGerald's through the years

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By Anna Lothson

Staff Reporter

It doesn't happen for all bands, but for many there's that day — perhaps a song or album release, or just a concert in a small back-alley club or street festival — where it's clear the group has made its mark. For the venues those artists consider their home stage, it works the same way.

For FitzGerald's in Berwyn, it's a little of both.

More than 30 years of music history has made the hometown club with a cozy backyard feel the go-to spot for many talented musicians, as indicated by the plethora of autographed drum heads covering the walls.

That's especially true this month.

The 32nd Annual American Music Festival, running June 29-July 3, kicks off another sizzling summer season for FitzGerald's, and this year it's going to be bigger than ever.

"Now it's a little over the top," owner Bill FitzGerald said, "but that's what the Fourth of July is all about, right?"

The music festival dates back to their first year in business, when the FitzGerald family took over a club that was "stuck in time." The building, he recalled, easily could have been torn down, but the FitzGerald brothers saw something more.

The old wood, the exposed skylights, the nostalgia of a 1920s-era building; it was timeless and looked like the perfect spot to create the next big Chicago-area music club.

Just like a band writing a new song, the crew kept what worked and scrapped the rest. And it paid off.

"We imagined how the space could look. And it turned out we were right. It was a great room," FitzGerald said. "Once we got open and started booking music — and it didn't take long — we were doing it seven days a week."

FitzGerald, along with his brothers and his buddies, took their expertise from visiting blues and jazz clubs until they found their own style. He learned that the burnout rate for clubs was about five years, but 32 years later, he can laugh at that statistic.

"I keep thinking, am I the ghost for punishment?"

Word spread among music agents and bands that instead of the city, the little spot in Berwyn was getting the reputation as one of the best live-music clubs in the area. Maybe it wasn't the most glamorous stage, but there's a feel to FitzGerald's that can't be found anywhere else.

"With an older building, there is a certain vibe to it," he said, putting the building in the "roadhouse" category. "The wood makes a difference."

The first few Independence Day music festivals weren't like anything seen at the place today, but they set the stage for a tradition people expect every summer.

The small backyard barbecue with four bands has exploded to more than 40 bands over a four-day period, and the food venues are bustling with options, including Capri restaurant, FitzGerald's neighbor.

The late Stevie Ray Vaughan was among the performers topping the charts at the first festival, a performer FitzGerald will forever remember.

"It kind of reflected what went on throughout the year," Fitzgerald said about the first festival. "And from there it just grew and grew."

This year, he's got a few special performers up his sleeve. But he's sworn to secrecy.

"People will have to come and see," he said.

For more information about the American Music Festival, at 6615 W. Roosevelt Road, visit fitzgeraldsnightclub.com.

Contact:
Email: anna@oakpark.com Twitter: @AnnaLothson

Reader Comments

11 Comments - Add Your Comment

Comment Policy

Will never, ever go again from Forest Park  

Posted: June 21st, 2012 1:23 PM

Grow up "Haha". I am neither a troll or a business competitor. My complaints are realistic, and based on my experience. I was there Tuesday, and plan to be there again tonight to see a fun band. I am hardly a dissatisfied customer either, I just don't support the AMF because of the way it's run, and I have my reasons which are all legit and realistic. Better luck next time to you. @OK, we experienced the overcrowding issues at a 5:00pm. However at 12:00pm it was "ok"

Christos from Oak Park  

Posted: June 21st, 2012 11:54 AM

How about the playing until well after midnight every night, along with the "Friendly Tap," Fitzgerald's is a nuisance. I'm glad the rest of you music lovers don't live within 2 blocks of either of these Berwyn Blights. The noise is infuriating. I understand 11 pm is the time limit for noise, but both of these places have bands playing way past midnight to the point that i can understand what the singer is saying from over 1.5 blocks away. You people are self-involved idiots.

Haha  

Posted: June 21st, 2012 1:21 AM

Kids being trampled on? The key to pretending you're a disatisfied customer, as opposed to a business competitor or troll with an axe to grind, is to keep the complaint realistic. Better luck next time.

OK  

Posted: June 21st, 2012 12:28 AM

That has never been my experience. Its outside and there is plenty of space. You know there is an indoor club too. Very accessible for me and my family. Especially during the day when kids are there.

Will never, ever go again from Forest Park  

Posted: June 20th, 2012 3:32 PM

There's crowded, and then there is unsafe and unpleasant crowded. I still go to the venue and stand shoulder to shoulder with others while enjoying many shows, but IN MY OPINON (which I am entitled to) the AMF is way over-crowded and unsafe. When it takes 40 minutes to squeeze your way through the crowd to go to the bathroom, while kids are screaming/crying and being trampled on, it's way more unpleasant than a "the more the merrier" situation. Imagine that.

OK  

Posted: June 20th, 2012 3:27 PM

Crowds, music and a major summer holiday.....Imagine that. The more the merrier.

Will never, ever go again from Forest Park  

Posted: June 20th, 2012 3:05 PM

The last few years were disappointing as there is no attempt at crowd control, over-crowding, which can make for a very miserable time - - fighting through the crowds, packed in like sardines. I still frequent FitzG's, but do not support the festival. Two years ago, I saw Bill and Kate arguing at the front door about capacity. Bill wanted to let more people in, Kate said enough is enough. Bill won. We left. Fire marshall needs to intervene at this event. It's just unsafe. Used to love going.

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: June 20th, 2012 1:12 PM

Sonny Landreth, Jimmy Vaughan, Bo Diddley, Peter Wolf, Nick Lowe, Joe Grushecky, Joe Ely - just some of the people I've seen over the years at Fitzgerald's and have missed many, many more. The best music venue in the city and probably the finest job of booking talent also - not only national but local.

J.Martin Konecki  

Posted: June 20th, 2012 12:07 PM

A big shout out to the Fitz STAFF as well as the owners, Bill, Kate and Family. It's truly a testament to the quality of this establishment and owners when you see all the people who have worked there throughout the years come back to the Amer Music Fest and help out, as well as the longevity of many of the people that currently work there.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: June 20th, 2012 11:50 AM

Bill and Kate Fitzgerald generously provided the venue and support for the John Prine tribute show that raised money to aid the fundraising efforts that will help rebuild the Stairway To The Stars dance studio in Maywood. Really great people and a terrific place to see and hear outstanding artists perform.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 19th, 2012 11:59 PM

God, I love Fitzgeralds!

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