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By Anna Lothson
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.
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