By Mark Guarino
The state of the union may be reserved for the next Oval Office occupant, but its musical counterpart took place at the 28th installment of the American Music Festival, a rite of summer for Chicago area music fans and a reliable gauge of how hearts and minds are faring in the heat of nationwide home foreclosures and skyrocketing gas prices.
Musicians have less incentive to temper bad news. The U.S. flags decorating FitzGerald’s, the Berwyn roadhouse that featured two stages of musicians from across the country, were not of the lapel pin variety, but were more of the populist strain associated with Woody Guthrie, who posthumously turns 96 next week.
On Saturday, the fourth and final day of the festival, two headliners summoned his spirit: Joe Ely and Dave Alvin. Both songwriters originated in the early punk rock era but since then carved out careers as chroniclers of marginalized America, in music steeped in rock grandeur, honkytonk stomp and cowboy ennui.
Inside the club, Ely, 61, played a familiar set of songs from his 30-year career. With accordion player Joel Guzman adding Tejano flavor to the music and peppering it with occasional vocal whoops, Ely sang songs that ranged from ruminative (“Treat Me Like a Saturday Night”) to western epics (“Letter to Laredo”), all lined with sadness.
Then came a new song, “Homeland Refugee,” Ely said was inspired by a reverse migration of Californians following the foreclosure epidemic. In the lyrics, Ely updated Guthrie’s Dustbowl metaphor: “Pastures of plenty/burned by the sea,” he sang.
On the outside stage, Alvin, 53, and a four-member band played houserocking country with detours into Chicago blues. Acknowledging he was playing on the curb of Roosevelt Rd., he paid homage to late West Side guitar masters Magic Sam and Earl Hooker with a cover of “Earl’s Rhumba.”
Alvin took a less resigned approach than Ely. Although playing Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” Alvin went further with music that was red-hot with discontent. He introduced “Out of Control” as one for our “new economic blues.” The song, with enough verses worthy of Bob Dylan, documented hard times with unflinching detail. Alvin spoke over a menacing groove while guitarist Chris Miller punctuated each verse with the only response that seemed appropriate: a squall of noise.