FitzGerald’s American Musical Festival a 4th of July weekend must

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

BY MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

Last Modified: Jun 27, 2012 06:28PM

Like Daniel Burnham, Bill FitzGerald made no small plans when he first launched the American Music Festival, which is now a mainstay of Chicago summers and one of the most generous musical feasts of the year.

Soon after he opened FitzGerald’s, his namesake Berwyn roadhouse, the festival featured just a young guitar slinger named Stevie Ray Vaughan on one night and Art Hodes’ All-Star Stompers the second. Today, the four-day festival has expanded over three stages featuring more than 40 artists and a festival area that has spilled from the club’s parking lot and multiple buildings into an adjoining street.

As in previous years, the line-up, food and atmosphere combine to replicate the fairground revelry at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival each spring. FitzGerald says that remains his goal: “If you take the heart of what we do here, the music is of that quality. It represents what we do here at FitzGerald’s and all the good music that happens all around the country. I’m pretty proud of it.”

Over time, FitzGerald established the club as home to the finest roots music standouts: guitarist and singer Dave Alvin, boogie pianist Marcia Ball, world music connoisseur Paul Cebar and many others. All are returning to headline the festival this year, except the schedule is notably filled with several new generation performers who are making inroads and are likely destined for many returns.

Here are just two:

(6:15-7 p.m. and 7:30-8:30 p.m. June 29 in the club)

Sons of Fathers represent Austin, Texas, although they’re hardly a straightforward honkytonk band. David Beck and Paul Cauthen share lead vocal duties, which makes the songs on their self-titled debut closer to those of Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Both singers and songwriters grew up in different ends of Texas – Beck in the central part of the state and Cauthen in the east – but they met in San Marcos, where they both played in bands. Soon after meeting they realized they worked well together – “Putting two people together, their voices are going to be different unless you’re twins or kin. But for me and Dave, it seems like we are related,” says Cauthen, 26.

They came to music naturally but from completely different places. Beck’s father is Bill Whitbeck, the songwriter and long-time bassist for Robert Earl Keen, the beloved Texas troubadour. Keen is a major supporter of Sons of Fathers, which Beck, 24, says gave him confidence, especially having grown up around musicians, which made getting into music “normal.”

“For most kids, saying you want to be a musician is like saying you want to be an astronaut – it can’t really happen. But for me, it was just a normal way of life,” he says.

Cauthen says he learned guitar and how to sing from his grandfather who led the music ministry at a local congregation of the Church of Christ. Because the church forbids instruments under its roof, Cauthen’s first memory of live music was primarily the a cappella choir, which he says struck him, not just because of the music’s volume, but also because of its exploding spirit.

“There’s nothing like hearing people of God sing and they’re belting it out. That’s peace, in my opinion. Everybody’s one big moving instrument. I learned to sing every note of every song as loud as I could,” he says.

Roots music producer and pedal steel guitar legend Lloyd Maines produced and plays on the album, a collection of country ballads and folk rock songs that features blasts of horns and atmospheric hymns. The music easily ushers the band alongside other new bands that are emphasizing acoustic instruments and big voices – Mumford & Sons, Avett Brothers, Dawes, for example – which Cauthen explains are now popular because his generation indulged for too long in pop music that was overly “buttered up” in studio gimmickry.

“We’re at a time when we need to go backward to get the purity of the music back on the table again,” he says.

In Austin, both musicians are the house engineers and producers for Fast Horse Studios, a local recording studio, where they work on albums by other locals. Like most musicians in their backyard, Texas figures heavily throughout their new songs, both in name-dropping places and names and also in the sound of vast landscape and streaming ribbons of highway.

Cauthen says the reason Texas musicians are probably the most likely of any to pay homage to their home state in song is because of the inherited pride that is passed down so strongly over generations.

“Texas is not welcoming if you’re not welcoming. We always want to respect it, because that’s where we are from,” he says.

(7:45-9 p.m. July 3, in the club)

Like Beck and Cauthen, Lydia Loveless grew up inside music – Her father owned a music club where she regularly watched the spectrum of musicians – blues bands, cover bands – do their thing night after night.

“Being at the bar I wanted to get on stage and do something,” she says. She also found her early competition: two sisters and a brother. “All attention hogs. That inspired me to be louder than anybody else.”

Her powerful voice drives “Indestructible Machine,” her second album and first on Chicago’s Bloodshot label. Vocal comparisons to Neko Case and even Loretta Lynn are inevitable, but Loveless also uses her soaring voice to lower the heat and draw the listener into intimate spaces.

“One thing I’ve noticed on records that’s bothered me is people not shutting up over dead space in the music. I do make a conscious effort not to ramble on and on. I think it’s important to be somewhat subtle,” she says.

Her Bloodshot debut follows a first album recorded when she was 17 for a label created by her manager. Today she doesn’t recognize herself in those songs, saying she prefers her newest for its confessional narratives ripped from the headlines of her own life.

“I just felt I knew myself a lot more. I wasn’t trying to prove myself to people or sound like ‘outlaw country’. I was just writing what came naturally,” she says.

Loveless lives in Columbus, Ohio, with Benjamin Lamb, her bassist and recent husband. Guitarist Todd May and her drummer-father, Parker Chandler, round out her band.

Despite the classic country feel of the songs and their punk rock snarl, the songs are also expertly crafted and pop ready. Their generous appeal presents Loveless, 21, as a new force to be reckoned with in country music, but also someone who doesn’t need handlers to smoothen the rough edges, which is poised to produce even deeper results in years to come. Like in the early years of Lucinda Williams, the heart-busting moments sound painfully small but are splashed into the music in a way they resonate across a big canvas. The pent-up anxiety in her voice gives the songs their energy through what sounds like a travelogue of a young person disgusted with her past and trying to figure out if she can manage adulthood.

“I’m generally anxious and write a lot in my journal. I’m actually trying to move away from that because I just wrote a whole album being that way, but it’s hard to get away from who you are,” she says.

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