A river runs to it

New Orleans heart and Midwest soul converge at FitzGerald's American Music Festival

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Cathryn Wilkinson

If you were casting about for the perfect Huck Finn for the school play, Bill FitzGerald would fit the role. There's no straw hat or wisp of grass between his teeth, and he's happily settled into middle age after making successful business deals for 27 years. But even so, the founder of the American Music Festival at his namesake club in Berwyn has an easy-going roll to his gait, a twinkle in his eye, and tell-tale, weather-beaten skin. The sights and sounds of the Mississippi River are never far from his mind.

As one of the owners of FitzGerald's Night Club on Roosevelt Road at Clarence, Bill has nursed the club's annual American Music Festival along to maturity with a New Orleans flair that fits his personal tastes. A former haunt for legends like Turk Murphy's Jazz Band from San Francisco, the Deer Lodge was up for sale by the Kubik family just when FitzGerald came calling in 1980. When he bought the place with the help of a brother and his dad, he knew exactly how he wanted to transform the 1950's roadhouse into a Louisiana-style, down-home hangout, without sacrificing the North Woods flavor of the old lodge.

Call it a north/south truce. He celebrated this American union for the first time on July 3-4, 1981 with grills in the parking lot and two big names that were still relatively new to Chicago ears: Stevie Ray Vaughan came with his blues guitar and Double Trouble, and Art Hodes' All-Star Stompers spiced the barbecue sauce with Dixieland.

That first festival was inspired by his summers on Illinois' Rock River as a child. "Dixon, Illinois had a lot to do with what happened here at FitzGerald's," he recalls. "They had a Petunia Festival that was the perfect old-time celebration-music, good home-cooked sweet corn, polkas, people having a great time together. That's what I wanted to do here."

The club is about as home-grown as a farm kid from Dixon. Many members of the FitzGerald clan had a hand in imprinting the old Deer Lodge with the family stamp. Bill's father, Chris Sr., by day a scientific writer, learned from a few handyman books how to restore the plumbing-which holds up yet today-and rewire the power. A family friend contributed design know-how. For nine months, the FitzGeralds sweated, hammered, re-plastered, and painted until the new club was ready to re-open in December 1980.

At 27, FitzGerald knew little about running a club. But he turned his clubbing experience, of which he admits he'd had plenty at that age, to good use. Some of the city's best live music venues served as templates-Wise Fools Pub in Lincoln Park and Amazingrace Coffeehouse Collective in Evanston. He wanted to pull the best from all the places he'd been together into something different. In fact the mantra "something different" has been a watchword all through the evolution of the hangout on Roosevelt Road.

The "Sidebar," renovated four years ago, is a classy old-time saloon with a stamped-tin ceiling and a behemoth juke box that Bill picked up junking with his wife/business manager, Kate. Formerly home to a TV repair shop and dry cleaners, the brick building looks like it might have been moved from Main Street in Dixon. The Sidebar party room will serve as a staging area for the festival's 39 performers, some of whom will be featured in the Sidebar's cozier climate while the outdoor stage is reset. Across the patio in the old lodge, with two deer racks standing guard, musicians will play to bigger crowds in the now non-smoking bar.

After the first year's festival, which was just a few notches above a big backyard barbecue, FitzGerald's friend and blues pianist/singer Marcia Ball, herself steeped in Louisiana's musical milieu, gave Bill a mandate. "We order you," he remembers her saying, "to head south for some authentic Cajun music, firsthand." He traveled to Louisiana the next spring and imported what he saw for festival #2.

Ball has played with her band at every festival since. From then on, the festival has become a magnet, not just for locals who love the fun and the tunes, but for the musicians, who now come from all over for the atmosphere. Even die-hard Creoles say they feel like they're back home when they play at FitzGerald's. He proudly notes that the original cypress wood in the club is from Louisiana too.

"I grew up in river towns-Cleveland, Cincinnati," FitzGerald says. "I love being out in the open, on the water."

This modern Huck Finn, who revels in rivers and the river music that comes from river people, had a big hand in bringing Cajun and Zydeco to the Midwest. More travels, perking up a discerning ear, led to more connections for the little clubhouse in Berwyn. Clifton Chenier was there with his squeeze-box and Red Hot Louisiana Band in the early '80s. Chenier's son, C.J., will be on hand to carry on the "Red Hot" legacy next week.

FitzGerald's parents were among the first to open up a B&B along one of the most scenic stretches of the Mississippi in northeastern Iowa. The "Ol' Man" that Paul Robeson crooned about so reverently is where FitzGerald still likes to escape during his free time-in a back cove near Lansing, Iowa. He has four old boats-which he partially rebuilt himself-moored at the spot, waiting for him when he can get away for a few hours of floating in the sun.

But never mind the suburban bustle of Berwyn compared to the river, or the easy pace of a pontoon boat where Bill can loll away hours. Over the years, the locust trees on the club's patio have grown and the perimeter is laced with cheery impatiens, making his corner of Roosevelt Road seem like a haven unto itself.

That quiet spell will be broken to good effect once the festival is underway. While he chats about the past, FitzGerald easily makes quick, nearly effortless decisions, answering vendors who call with questions. Although the festival has expanded over the years, there are no new wheels to be invented. The kinks have long ago been ironed out, the well-oiled machine humming.

The Wishbone, recently opened next door, is peddling the Southern home cooking that has long been popular at their original Chicago site. About 20 employees will be on hand to make sure the 39 bands-and the expected crowd of 5,000-will be able to navigate smoothly as they come 'round the true-to-life bend on the Mississippi, memorialized in an oversized blue mural by Fred Sperry overlooking FitzGerald's patio.

Like I said, the river is never far from his mind.

Not just for kids
Golden Horse Ranch Square Dance Band with caller Annie Coleman, Saturday
Terrance Simien's Creole for Kidz, Saturday

Old Hands Return
Terrance Simien, zydeco, Saturday
BeauSoleil, Cajun, Saturday
Sleepy LaBeef, rockabilly and more, Saturday
Marcia Ball Band, Gulf Coast R&B, Saturday & Sunday
The Salty Dogs, jazz on Tuesday

'07 Debuts
James Hunter, Classic R&B, Friday
Bob Schneider, eclectic R&B-country-pop, Saturday
Michelle Malone, blues/rock, Sunday
Willy Porter, pop vocals & guitar, Tuesday

Big Band
John Burnett Orchestra, Sunday

Gospel
The Victory Travelers with the Anointed Vessel Choir, Sunday
The Holmes Brothers, Sunday

Bluegrass
Big Smith, Friday
Jeff & Vida, Tuesday

Blues
Tony Joe White, Saturday
Mark Hummel, Sunday

Category-defying
Bill Kirchen of "Hot Rod Lincoln" fame, Sunday
Pat McLaughlin and his Nashville studio band, soul, groove, country, Sunday

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