It’s the show of all shows, a culmination of 25-plus years together as an American roots and Celtic soul duo.

And it’s a homecoming. Martin McCormack and Brian FitzGerald have played at FitzGerald’s more times than they can count, but this is their sole Chicago-area appearance in 2018.

And it’s a reunion, bringing the FitzGerald family together, some recently discovered.

“They’ll get the full Switchback story in one evening,” said Martin McCormack, of the performance on Friday night. “This is a very unusual show — everything from the duo to the full band to our dance music to our more Irish numbers.”

Brian FitzGerald, 59, younger brother to the music club’s owner Bill, calls Lansing, Iowa, home, but he hails from Oak Park. It was while growing up here that he first developed his guitar skills.

“When I was at Oak Park High … I became a kind of guitar hermit,” FitzGerald recalled. “I bought a guitar and took lessons from Guitar Fun and that was it. I had a third-floor room with a dormer. I could look out the window at the corner of Euclid and Randolph and study guitar. I would just play, sometimes 8-9 hours a day.” 

After attending Triton, where he played in a rock band, and then Plymouth State College in New Hampshire where he played jazz, he returned home where FitzGerald’s Nightclub was getting its start.

The Stomp Jazz Band played weekly, he said. When their rhythm guitarist heard him play, he let FitzGerald sit in with the band, then started bringing him to Andy’s Jazz Club and he would “sit in with some of the best players in Chicago.” 

Although he owned a mandolin, FitzGerald continued to focus on guitar until he met Kenneth “Jethro” Burns, considered a mandolin virtuoso and part of the Grammy winning musical-comedy team Homer & Jethro. Burns was performing at FitzGerald’s and Brian asked if he could take lessons. Burns agreed and the new mandolin student made the weekly trek up to Evanston.

Even though FitzGerald says he’s 75 percent Irish, he had not explored any Irish music until the first St. Patrick’s Day at the bar.

“I was cleaning up, sweeping up,” he said. He was told to go home and get his mandolin and guitar. “I ended up playing the entire three sets and then they brought me on to an album with the Chicago Irish Musicians Association.”

McCormack grew up in Woodstock, Illinois, and now lives in Rogers Park, and the two bonded playing for Irish bands, including the Wailin’ Banshees. Pushing traditional boundaries, they formed Switchback, released their first of 15 albums in 1993 and have been touring the world ever since.

While FitzGerald plays mandolin and guitar, McCormack plays guitar and bass. Both men sing and they perform some traditional Irish tunes, but write much of their own music, which they began doing together when they first met in the mid-1980s.

“The collaborative effort gives us the freedom to write a lot more than if we were to do it as individuals,” McCormack said. “Lennon and McCartney were the best example to us of a songwriting team. We modeled ourselves on the best aspects of what those guys had.”

Their success has ranged from an early song being picked up for a Chevy Blazer commercial, to albums produced by Grammy-award-winner Lloyd Maines, to PBS specials, to a tune used on NBC’s Grimm.

The duo also shares their music through community outreach, for example in retirement homes and for those with special needs. They perform at the Oak Park Arms annually and have a gig in September at a retirement home in Woodstock, where McCormack’s former guitar teacher resides.

But first is Friday’s show. FitzGerald cousins, discovered during the auction of a family prayer book being sold at a London bookseller, are coming in for the event as the guests of honor. The pair is also expecting Switchback fans to converge from all over for this special performance.

See Switchback, Friday, Aug. 24. Duo at 8 p.m, full band at 10 p.m., at FitzGerald’s. $20, advance purchase; $25 at door. Tickets: 6615 W. Roosevelt Road, Berwyn.  

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