The American Music Festival is a 33-year-running four-day event that takes place every Fourth of July weekend in the city of Berwyn, IL, blocks from historic Oak Park, home of Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Since 1980, Fitzgerald’s Nightclub, a venerable music spot that has been featured in films like A League of Their Own and Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, has hosted the festival, often showcasing the best talent from Texas and Louisiana. The club has also imported the rustic, sometimes rowdy, vibe of a Texas roadhouse.
This year, newcomers like St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Luke Winslow-King and Luella & the Sun, were added to an all-star lineup that included Los Angeles rockabilly legend Dave Alvin (who surprised the opening night crowd with a reunion of The Blasters with his brother Phil Alvin), legendary British rock and roller Ian McLagan, and New Orleans pianist Marcia Ball.
The American Music Festival imitates New Orleans’ own wonderful Jazz & Heritage Festival—right down to Tom’s Famous Gumbo, modeled off recipes from Nola’s fairground vendors—but it adds a Chicago flavor all its own.
In keeping with the spirit of New Orleans, the first band to play the club stage was The Original Salty Dogs Jazz Band. The Salty Dogs are a mix of old timers and young guns. The band formed in 1947 at Indiana’s Purdue University, though clarinetist and leader Kim Cusack noted, “None of us are scholars, anymore.” Cusack’s Sidney Bechet-inspired tone was evident on the group’s theme song, “That’s a Plenty,” as well as classics like Earl “Fatha” Hines’ “A Monday Date,” Johnny St. Cyr’s “Oriental Strut” and “Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jellyroll,” on which Cusack belted out the double entendre-filled vocal. Guest cornetist Andy Schumm (Fat Babies) sported a “Bix” patch on his shirt, and dutifully channeled the great Davenport, Iowa, jazzman.
Following the Salty Dogs set in the club, Luke Winslow-King brought an updated taste of New Orleans. The Michigan native has been gaining a steady following in Chicago since signing with Bloodshot Records and releasing his album The Coming Tide. Winslow-King treated the growing crowd to cuts from his Bloodshot debut, as well as new material like the bluesy “Crystal Water Springs” and jazz-inflected “I’m Your Levee Man.”
Wearing a white pinstripe suit, Mud Morganfield possessed the same sideways smirk of his father, Muddy Waters. “Don’t Write Me No Letters” and “Short Dress Woman,” the opening track from his 2012 album, Son of the Seventh Son, kept Morganfield’s set in a classic post-war Chicago blues vein. “I didn’t ask for this. It asked for me,” Morganfield said by way of explaining his musical heritage, then launched into Dad’s signature tune, the Willie Dixon-penned “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Morganfield was not only agile in moving through blues numbers, but showed his complex relationship with the art form.
“I wrote this song for my brother. He sings it better, but I remember all the words,” said Dave Alvin before playing “Long White Cadillac,” a song Dwight Yoakam later cut on the 1989 singles collection Just Lookin’ For A Hit. “Chicago, home of the blues, R&B, and jazz,” Alvin ruminated before starting his own personal blues history, “Ashgrove,” which name-checks musicians like Johnny Shines and Willie Dixon and the legendary Southside blues club Peppers Lounge. “I’m going back to the Ashgrove, that’s where I come from,” sang Alvin, drawing out his own sadness in the blues. Alvin and his brother Phil formed California alt-country legends The Blasters in 1979, though Dave went on to join punk band X and pursue his own solo career. (His version of Hank Williams’ “Lonesome Whistle” is featured in the new Lone Ranger film, alongside spooky country and western material from Iron & Wine and Ben Kweller.) Alvin invited his brother to the stage for an unannounced (but widely speculated) Blasters reunion. “I wrote this song before this festival even existed,” he said, introducing the song “American Music.” The crowd, invariably, went nuts.
John Fullbright is one of the standouts in a new batch of Americana songwriters. The Oklahoma native played the club stage on Friday night, opening his set with Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers’ “I’m So Glad (Trouble Don’t Last Always).” “Sending this one back to Oklahoma,” said Fullbright, jump-starting the rowdy crowd.
Fullbright played songs from his 2012 album, From The Ground Up, which was nominated for the Grammy in the Best Americana Album category, alongside Bonnie Raitt (who won), Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers and The Lumineers. Songs like “Jericho” and “Satan and St. Paul” were all fire and brimstone, approaching the sanctified soul of gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson. “We’re from Oklahoma and we’re fucking serious about it,” Fullbright said, clearly not joking.
On the bluesy boogie “All The Time in the World,” Fullbright showed his prowess on harmonica, holding his own in a town known for blues harp masters, then switched to keyboard for a funky solo, adding Talkbox at the end.
“This is one of the [most fun] things we’ve played in a while,” he said.
Couldn’t agree more, myself.