Bill FitzGerald recalls, growing up, that when his family threw big backyard parties, his father would say, “Fire up the power washer,” and that’s what the crew at FitzGerald’s Night Club, 6615 Roosevelt Road in Berwyn, have said, at least figuratively, every year for 34 years as Independence Day nears.
“We had the tuckpointer in last week,” said FitzGerald. “We painted the black top. We’re getting the yard looking good.”
The main performance tent was delivered last Thursday, 40 x 60 feet. With their own stock of four smaller tents, they have more than 5,000 square feet of covered real estate.
“We’re in good shape,” he said. “This is a rain-or-shine event.”
That’s good because, as FitzGerald puts it, “We’ve seen it all, weather-wise.” One year conditions were so bad, they had to run the festival on three generators, including the one in the beer truck. The reduced lighting was so atmospheric that when all the lights suddenly came back on late at night, “Everybody booed,” he recalls.
This is the 34th annual festival, but they’ve been celebrating July 4th for 35 years, FitzGerald said. “The first year we had Stevie Ray Vaughn on July 3 and New Orleans jazz on July 4.”
The festival still retains a New Orleans/Cajun/Zydeco vibe, but the overall effect, FitzGerald said, is “roots Americana music.” They’ve got more than 50 acts scheduled, at least one for every state, theoretically anyway, though the Louisiana-Texas axis tends to dominate. With names like Mississippi Mudpuppies, how can any music lover resist?
“It’s a festival,” FitzGerald said, “but it feels like a big yard party.” The line-up rivals the much bigger events, including the Jerry Garcia-less Grateful Dead, who are invading Chicago that weekend.
Unlike the bigger festivals, they don’t rely as much on corporate sponsorship. WXRT and Burke Beverage provide a boost, but the event is mostly fan-sponsored.
“We’re lucky,” FitzGerald said. “The artists want to play here. They’re not getting the big festival money they could earn elsewhere. But it’s a cool thing. They love hanging out.”
And so do the listeners. A four-day pass costs $25/day. There’s plenty of beer, wine coolers, lemonade, ice tea and frozen margaritas to wash down the thousand pounds of pork (for cochon de lait sandwiches), 500 pounds of Andouille sausage, 200 pounds of BBQ shrimp, 200 pounds of bratwurst, 200 pounds of rice and over 100 gallons of chicken stock (for the jambalaya), provided by caterers Jim and Tom “Festival” Cimms (who previously owned Murphy’s on the Mall in Oak Park).
And next-door neighbor Capri restaurant will offer Italian beef and sausage on French bread, plus sharing the use of their kitchen with FitzGerald’s crew.
The American Music Festival is billed as “the oldest of its kind in the Chicago area.” That means they’ve had plenty of practice putting it on.
“I have a lot of good help,” said FitzGerald, who, at the age of 62 admits it’s a bit exhausting. “We’ve gotten much better at eliminating the unexpected, and we have a lot of little touches that make the experience better.”
You can find out what those are, starting today and running through Saturday. For more information, call 708-788-2118 or email firstname.lastname@example.org