By Robin Zimmerman
Photos: Howard Greenblatt
Lil' Ed kicked off the Berwyn Blues Fest by getting friendly with the fans.
For one glorious weekend, the ‘burb of Berwyn was a bastion for blues lovers as FitzGerald’s nightclub hosted its first ever Berwyn Blues festival from September 24th through September 26th.
This fest featured featured the finest Chicago blues artists along with some new names hailing from Austin, Texas, the Mississippi Delta, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Detroit and other musical hotbeds. From the first notes by Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials to the closing jam with John Primer and his “Real Deal” blues band, this festival was one for the ages.
Having a blues fest in Berwyn was even more special considering all the uncertainty surrounding the Chicago Blues Fest. The rumor mill has been rife with talk of it being reduced to a one-day festival, but this schedule change has not been confirmed by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE).
While the future of the Chicago Blues Fest remains uncertain, the Berwyn Blues Festival will be back in 2022, according to Will Duncan, the owner of FitzGerald’s Night Club. Like the 2021 edition, it will be held the last weekend in September.
Honey Island Swamp Band
Duncan said that “as the news on the pandemic was getting better and better, we looked at the end of September for a larger capacity event.” He added, “I believe (FitzGerald’s talent booker) Donnie Biggins suggested we try a blues festival considering how much blues we already present at FitzGerald’s and have such a great audience and loyal fan base. Blues is also a symbolic and important Chicago cultural experience.”
This isn’t the first time that Duncan and the FitzGerald’s team have helped bring the music to a community in need of its curative properties. Duncan took over ownership of FitzGerald’s on March 5th, 2020, following a “March Fourth” party with the FitzGerald family who had owned the club for forty years and made the former hunting lodge a mecca for music lovers.
In a cruel twist of fate, Duncan was forced to shut down the club on Friday, March 13th (cue scary music) due to the Covid-19 lockdown. While the future of FitzGerald’s and live music in general seemed uncertain, Duncan and company devised some creative ways to continue to bring music to the masses and keep the venerable club in business.
Duncan credits his wife, Jessica King, for coming up with the concept of having flat-bed truck “concerts” cruise through the community. This proved to be a bright spot during the first bleak weeks of sheltering in place with neighbors coming together to submit requests for a socially distanced musical stop on their block.
These rolling road shows were broadcast on Facebook Live with a call-out for viewers to donate to help sustain the furloughed FitzGerald’s bar staff. Duncan kept his management team intact as the various promotions and pandemic-related pivots shifted into high gear.
When he assumed ownership of the club, Duncan wisely decided to retain both the FitzGerald’s name and its seasoned staff. He was keen on honoring the rich musical legacy that Bill FitzGerald and family had brought to Berwyn.
With booker Biggins remaining on board, Duncan said this allows him “to leverage the important artist relationships that he had cultivated through working with Bill FitzGerald.”
With the musical legacy intact, it was time to tackle the brick and mortar to make FitzGerald’s outdoor campus safer for patrons as they navigated the new normal. The area that once served as a parking lot was turned into a patio paradise complete with a permanent stage built against the building that houses the SideBar stage. The newly-vacant Capri Restaurant became reimagined as BabyGold Barbecue to complement the cool vibe reminiscent of New Orleans or Austin.
On Friday, September 24th, that vibe was in overdrive as folks were lining up for entry well before the 5 pm opening. With the signature FitzGerald’s flatbed truck taking in the waning rays of Roosevelt Road sunset, the spacious patio beckoned. Once vaccine cards or a negative Covid-19 test had been produced, the early birds swooped in to stake out the best available tables.
Local DJ Tom Marker, who has been a long-running champion and proponent of the Chicago blues scene, came on promptly at 6 p.m. to introduce the first act — the always-entertaining Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials. They were followed by Toronzo Cannon and the Chicago Way. Shemekia Copeland rounded out this trifecta of Alligator Recording artists and you’d best believe she had the crowd on their feet as she closed out the evening.
While all this was going down on the patio, many were ducking indoors for some music inside the club that is dripping in both musical and cinematic history under the mural made famous in League of the Own.
Local acts Donna Herula Band and Dave Specter Band with Brother John Kattke took the early slots while New Orleans’ export Honey Island Swamp Band with Rick King closed out the night.
Rain came down during the evening but no one’s spirits were dampened, thanks in part to the tented patio. Plus, with the entire evening seemingly going off without a hitch, attendees were just happy to have a well-run blues bonanza going down in Berwyn.
Duncan had kudos for the entire staff when he noted that, “I think that this reflects a larger theme that our team had kind of been building towards this festival experience” as they started with providing just beverage service last summer before incorporating BabyGold barbecue earlier this year. He added that, “for the staff, it didn’t feel that different than a normal busy weekend.”
Nick Moss Band
With the staff at the ready, patrons were again queuing up before noon for all the Saturday musical action. Chicagoland’s Nick Moss Band kicked things off on the patio promptly at 1 p.m. and were followed by Texans Zach Person and Jackie Venson; both performed as guitar/drum duos.
Brooklyn’s retro Soul/R&B belter Bette Smith started the evening with a set that got the crowd dancing. Detroit’s Thornetta Davis and Austin’s Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears packed the patio stage
Bette Smith Band
While Duncan noted that “I was pretty blown away by every single performance,” he did single out Venson’s stage presence as he praised her “intoxicating” show and the “unique and creative way she produces backing tracks to create a pretty singular sound.” He also gave a shout out to Toronzo Cannon’s stage turn saying that while he’s seen his act plenty of times, Cannon “over delivered” on Friday night.
There was also a full slate of great blues inside the club on Saturday with a lineup that included local acts Omar Coleman, the Smiley Tillmon Band, Lauren Anderson, the Mike Wheeler Band and Georgia’s Eddie 9V.
Eddie 9V, Smiley Tillmon, Omar Coleman
Sunday’s lineup was equally loaded with talent with Dave Herrero and fiddle-playing sensation Anne Harris coming on at 1 p.m. for a rousing patio performance. Herrero spoke for the many satisfied attendees when he said that Duncan “bought the place and put it on steroids.” He added that “where there’s a “Will,” there’s a way!”
Herrero and Harris paved the way for a return performance from Eddie 9V followed by the Joanna Connor Band, Cedric Burnside (of North Mississippi fame), and Ronnie Baker Brooks all playing the patio on Sunday.
Cedric Burnside, Nora Jean, Joanna Connor
The Cash Box Kings were the opening act in the club on Sunday. Harp player and vocalist, Joe Nosek is recovering from knee surgery and literally used a crutch to make his musical points with fellow front man, Oscar Wilson, Other club performers included Nora Jean Wallace, Billy Branch and the Sons of the Blues, Vanessa Collier with guitar hero Laura Chavez and finally John Primer along with his Real Deal Blues Band. Blues harp hero Billy Branch stuck around after his set to sit in with Ronnie Baker Brooks and John Primer for an added bonus.
Ronnie Baker Brooks & Billy Branch
Longtime blues aficionado Jean Vetrovec echoed the sentiments of many when she said, “I really liked the blues festival as it had diverse acts from younger blues to older blues. She added that “the venue went above and beyond to make patrons feel safe with mask and vaccination protocols.”
Like Duncan, Vetrovec was duly impressed with the amount of talent featured at FitzGerald’s but was especially enamored with Nora Jean Wallace’s performance. Vetrovec said that “her dedication to carrying on a strong woman’s voice in the blues was awesome.” Vetrovec also enjoyed Billy Branch and added that “he never disappoints.”
John Primer, Billy Branch, Steve Bell (photo: Linda Cain)
With the first annual FitzGerald’s blues festival in the books, Duncan said that this year’s event “exceeded expectations in every way.” He also hopes to “build on its success” with the option to add another stage on Clarence Avenue. This also bodes well for the long-running American Music Festival, which will be back in its traditional Independence Day weekend time slot.
In addition to the happy news that Americana roots and blues festivals are on tap at FitzGerald’s in 2022, there is still plenty of music to be enjoyed in the upcoming weeks.
Get more details on the diverse musical lineup, BabyGold barbecue menu and more at https://www.fitzgeraldsnightclub.com