More than 60 bands on three stages playing a cross section of Americana music fairly describes FitzGerald’s 37th annual American Music Festival, starting on Friday. For 36 of those years, owner Bill FitzGerald booked the bands. But this year, the nightclub’s talent buyer Donnie Biggins has taken on booking 40 mainstage bands for the four-day event.
“This is a dream scenario for me in a career,” Biggins said. “This is my favorite music venue of my whole life and it is the heart of American music.”
Biggins, 31, grew up in south Oak Park and still resides here. After graduating from college with a degree in education, he and other Oak Park friends formed a band called The Shams. Biggins plays guitar, sings and also writes songs. While booking his band, he started helping others do the same and became an independent promoter. He started Harmonica Dunn, a concert booking company, and also owns the Tonic Room, a bar and live music venue in Chicago, which he purchased in 2016 after booking performers there. After working with Bill FitzGerald to fill in dates for approximately 15 shows annually the previous six years, Biggins has been working full time at FitzGerald’s since May 2017.
“[Bill’s] available to me all the time whenever I need advice, guidance on shows and ideas I come up with,” Biggins said. “I call him first and discuss it with him, so he’s very much involved. I take care of all the day-to-day communications with the bands, but he’s taught me a whole lot of what it takes to run the music portion of this venue.”
For the American Music Festival, Biggins has taken great care in balancing old favorites who return every year, such as Marcia Ball (she was booked first) and Joe Ely, and new talent, including acts from the Chicago label Bloodshot Records.
“My goal has always been to bring as much new talent as possible here — upcoming bands, bands from the city — and also maintain the relationships that have been here 30-plus years to make sure there is a seamless transition, not booking things that aren’t traditional FitzGerald’s concerts,” he said. “There’s no reason to change the environment of this place.”
Biggins personally knows and believes in many of the artists performing at this year’s fest and said he is especially excited about Bob Schneider, The Band of Heathens, Sam Lewis, Katy Guillen & The Girls, Ruby Boots, Ike Reilly, Zephaniah, Archie Bell, John Moreland and “all of Tuesday.”
When Biggins was putting the festival together, he created a playlist to get a feel for the sound. One artist, someone Biggins had always wanted to book, John Moreland, he describes as having a very American, Bruce Springsteen-esque sound without the sax. Bill FitzGerald was not familiar with Moreland and “listened to him all night and thought he was incredible.”
Biggins aims to create a vibe for each day: Friday, Texas-roots based; Saturday, Bloodshot acts; Sunday, New Orleans/Zydeco; Tuesday, “going all out” with a balance of male/female artists. He believes well-known performers like Nick Lowe, James McMurtry, Tributosaurus, Marcia Ball and CJ Chenier will draw the crowds.
At the Sidebar are many regular FitzGerald’s performers and local bands, such as Heavy Sounds, Bitters, Cannonball, The Menards, Dowd/Drew and Jenny Bienemann. Kate FitzGerald, co-owner of FitzGerald’s, booked the Sidebar musical acts.
One of FitzGerald’s bartenders, Ryan Joseph Anderson of Berwyn, also gets top billing with his band Flirting with Time, which will play A Tribute to Tom Petty on Saturday night in the Club. Anderson is a singer and guitarist.
FitzGerald’s 37th American Music Festival is Friday June 29, 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday, June 30, 1 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday, July 1, 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.; and Tuesday, July 3, 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. $40 per day, Friday and Saturday; $50 per day, Sunday and Tuesday; $140, four-day pass (online purchase); $10, age 12 and under (until 10 p.m.). Tickets: ticketweb.com or at the door. $10 off during the first hour, cash at door. More: fitzgeraldsnightclub.com/Fest2018. 6615 Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn.