A year ago, the fate of FitzGerald’s was hanging in the balance. Longtime owner Bill FitzGerald, who in 1980 had transformed Berwyn’s former dive bar the Deer Lodge into a thriving epicenter of American roots music, announced his retirement from the biz and the subsequent and probable sale of the property.
AMERICAN MUSIC FESTIVAL When: June 29-July 3 Where: FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn Tickets: $40-$50 in advance Information: ticketweb.com
But a year later, on the eve of the 37th Annual American Music Festival — one of Chicago’s longest-running and most eclectic gatherings that brings together more than 60 bands over four days (June 29-30, July 1 & 3) in a melting pot of blues, rock, soul, zydeco, funk, jazz and country — it’s still “business as usual” at FitzGerald’s, assures Donnie Biggins.
In 2017, the thirtysomething Biggins was personally tapped by FitzGerald to continue booking the venue’s musical acts, and though Biggins says the “campus” — which also includes FitzGerald’s SideBar and Capri Ristorante Italiano — is still for sale, he is actively booking talent through the end of 2018 and beyond.
“The intention, I think, is to sell [the club] to someone who will keep it the same. The [FitzGeralds] don’t want to see this place go or be torn down or anything. No one wants that and no one in the community wants to see that,” says Biggins.
In fact, as we are talking, Biggins says FitzGerald is next door fixing plumbing in the restaurant. “He’s still invested and still here a lot. I reach out to him with questions all the time, and I look to him for guidance. My goal was not to shake things up but to keep all the relationships that he had here at the club and have a seamless transition from Bill’s booking to mine. I know what works here.”
Biggins grew up in Oak Park (as did FitzGerald, who originally made his career as a house painter in the neighborhood), and when the young college kid returned home and started his own band, a Kinks-meets-Wilco rock fusion act called The Shams Band, Biggins first started to build his relationship with the venerable club owner.
“Living so close to FitzGerald’s, and knowing its great reputation, we really wanted to play the club, and in doing so I started getting to know Bill on a more personal level. Over time I was able to turn that into a career for myself learning that side of the industry. Bill would send me some dates to work on throughout the year, and I started helping on the American Music Fest in 2014.”
Biggins’ main role, he says, was to enlist newer, less exposed acts for the venue, something he had excelled at as the owner of Lincoln Park’s “artist-friendly lounge” Tonic Room and the president of the Harmonica Dunn Corp., a local promoter conglomerate that describes itself as “an evolving community of musicians working together for the betterment of the Chicago music scene.” Though Harmonica Dunn sponsors a variety of shows around the city, its hallmark is the annual Dunn Dunn Fest, a multi-day celebration of American music very akin to FitzGerald’s annual affair, except it’s held in the winter, usually in February.After taking root at Schubas and Lincoln Hall for a number of years, Biggins moved Dunn Dunn Fest to FitzGerald’s for the first time in 2018. “I mimicked the format for American Music Fest, with acts playing in an outdoor heated tent, in the nightclub and the SideBar stages,” he says. “My goal is to have a winter version of American Music Fest so we have something to look forward to in the community.”
One of the acts that played Dunn Dunn Fest in 2018, the Blackfoot Gypsies, made such an impression that Biggins knew they had to return for American Music Fest, closing out the final day on July 3.
“I’m really trying to build up some new heritage acts here at FitzGerald’s that the regulars in our community will hopefully grow to love,” says Biggins, “which is why I really encourage people to come early to American Music Fest. Don’t show up at 8 p.m. because you’ll miss the whole day and miss a lot of those bands that are going to grow onto a national level that you wish you would’ve seen then.”
The lineup — which Biggins has been working on since last fall with Bill FitzGerald’s guidance — also includes the annual resident acts like Marcia Ball, C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band, James McMurtry and the Joe Ely Band as well as a heavy dose of Bloodshot Records acts such as Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Al Scorch and Ruby Boots “for some Chicago love,” he says. The festival also includes the trademark authentic creole American BBQ from former restaurateur Tom Cimms.
“The American Music Fest is easily my favorite festival that’s in Chicagoland,” admits Biggins. “It’s something I grew up going to and wanting to be a part of, so this is a dream job for me to be able to work where I live and where I grew up and be immersed in the environment of FitzGerald’s. Maybe I’m biased, but I have never toured or played at a place that feels as comfortable as FitzGerald’s does to me. It needs to continue on, and I will do anything and everything I can to do for my part to keep it that way.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.