In ordinary times, a pickup truck with balloons slowly driving down your street with a musician playing from the bed and a guy on a bicycle following along filming would sound like some weird dream. But, this is entertainment FitzGerald’s style during the pandemic and it is bringing smiles to the faces and rhythms to the feet of socially distanced neighbors in north Berwyn, south Oak Park and beyond.
With places like music venues and bars deemed nonessential by the state, the doors at FitzGerald’s Nightclub in Berwyn are closed. Will Duncan, owner and operator of FitzGerald’s since purchasing it in early March, said the idea for the club’s Stay at Home Concert Series came out of solving the problem of how to go on while staying at home.
It was his wife, Jess King, who came up with the idea when she read about food trucks driving around like ice cream trucks. King is an assistant principal at Association House of Chicago, an alternative school in Humboldt Park.
“She turned to me and said, ‘This is pretty cool, but what if with FitzGerald’s Nightclub you did the same thing like an ice cream truck, but with live music?’ Duncan said.
Springing into action, Duncan and his team spent only one week between idea and execution.
“We didn’t think much about should we try to do this; we just immediately thought about how to do it,” he said.
That first concert, on April 4, brought Jon Langford (The Mekons, The Waco Brothers) into the back of Duncan’s pickup. Duncan drives while Donnie Biggins, FitzGerald’s head of music, rides his bicycle filming with his phone for the livestream shown on FitzGerald’s Facebook page.
The route is plotted based on nearby residents filling out a request form on the FitzGerald’s website. The first concert received 30 requests. The second concert, held the next Saturday with Dag Juhlin (Sunshine Boys, Expo 76, Poi Dog Pondering), brought in 300 requests.
Grammy nominated Cathy Richardson was the musician on Saturday, April 18, and FitzGerald’s has musicians planned out for three weeks beyond that.
“We’ll keep doing it as long as we find artists adventurous enough to perform from the back of a moving pickup truck and as long as no one stops us,” Duncan said.
Duncan has been “shocked by the scope” of people viewing the livestream. For the first concert there were people from Australia, Brazil, Norway and Canada. While live, they are getting 500 unique views and 30,000 to 40,000 views afterwards for the concerts.
The livestream is also being used interactively. Grace Jackson, FitzGerald’s marketing manager, posts comments and starts conversations from home during the concerts. She also asks for song requests, then passes them on through text to Duncan who shouts them back, through his mask, to the musician behind him.
The whole production has guidelines that keep everyone safe. To prevent gathering, no one knows the route except the FitzGerald team. About five or ten minutes before arriving at the destination, people who requested a visit are notified by text so they can go outside and enjoy the music, each family from their own front yards.
“We drive down their block and they’re hanging out dancing on their porch and just smiling ear to ear,” Duncan said. “Of course their neighbors hear and step out onto their porch so what you get are entire blocks of people who are standing on their porches or in their front yards, all properly spaced out and socially distanced, just listening to music roll down their block.”
The concert lasts two hours as it winds through the streets making 10 stops. A virtual tip jar is set up through PayPal and Venmo. Donations go toward supporting each musician, the club and a fund for staff that relies on FitzGerald’s for their income. The club is also selling gift cards and merchandise, which further helps staff and FitzGerald’s.
Duncan said the management and marketing team are working on other options to offer during quarantine.
“You can tell people need that live music experience,” he said.
The next Stay at Home Concert features Phil Angotti on Saturday, April 25, 4 p.m., coming to a street or screen near you. More: fitzgeraldsnightclub.com, facebook.com/fitzgeraldsnightclub.