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FitzGerald's to sizzle with four-day music fest

June 27th, 2013

by Lilli Kuzma; reprinted with permission from Sun-Times Media

"It will be musical fireworks from start to end," gushed Bill Fitzgerald, owner of FitzGerald's in Berwyn, about the venue's upcoming American Music Festival.

The annual event, taking place July 3-6, is in its 33rd year and will feature a wide range of roots and Americana music acts with 40 bands on three stages.

The food will also be sizzling, with both Cajun and American barbecue, the signature jambalaya, along with some vegetarian and pasta offerings. Tom Cimms returns as the chef.

This year's musical entertainment offers many returning acts such as Jimmy LaFave, Dave Alvin & The Guilty Ones, Jon Dee Graham, Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience, Marcia Ball Band, Cathy Richardson Band, Sonny Landreth and perennial favorite, Brave Combo.

Brave Combo, a quintet based in Denton, Texas, infuses polka elements into everything from Japanese pop and Latin American music to classic rock and their own originals. The band has been featured in an episode of "The Simpsons" and their rendition of the song "Must Be Santa" was covered by Bob Dylan on his recent Christmas album.

"When I was in graduate school, I stumbled on all these polka records in a Woolworth's store and just fell in love with the music," said the band's founder, Carl Finch. "And I was thinking that, if you played this music as a rock band, people would like this stuff. So the idea of the band was to use polka as a cornerstone, and to take the music out of where it was usually played and to play it in places I was used to — which at that time was rock clubs."

Finch continues to be amazed at the success of the group, and how his decidedly "outside the box" idea for the band continues to captivate audiences.

"It's just kind of an amazing process to see how humans immediately rise above pop culture, and it's almost as if none of the stuff said about polka before mattered," he said.

Among the first-timers at American Music Festival is the Naomi Ashley Band, which draws on American folk, blues and country, but the group's namesake is no stranger to FitzGerald's and credits the club to her true start as a singer-songwriter.

"I found the Fitzgerald's Open Mic and started playing the songs I wrote," said Ashley, "and I did a lot of comedy at first, but being nurtured at this Open Mic, I was exposed to songwriters like [the late] James McCandless, Frank Tedesco, Brian Anderson — it was a good school in songwriters. That, probably more than anything, influenced me to write different types of songs."

Fitzgerald is excited about the Naomi Ashley Band and other new acts this year. "John Fullbright, he was up for a Grammy [for best Americana album], and The Fleshtones have been around a long time and were great when they played here with their hard rockin' pop rock. There's also Melissa Ferrick Trio, Luella and the Sun, Luke Winslow King, The Westies which includes Michael McDermott, Warren Hood and Brave Combo to close out the Fourth of July, which I think is my best day. But we need people to show up. We're not sponsored like big festivals, so it's the people attending, one at a time, that keeps this happening."

Asked if there will be any actual fireworks, Fitzgerald laughed: "No. We had sparklers once, and people started throwing their napkins up in the air, and it just doesn't seem like a good idea to do that again."