Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 14, 2010
POP CULTURE: A Bluesy New Year, 1979
In the annals of unusual but awesome concert bills, this one has to be up there: the last show at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, on New Year's Eve 1978-79, headlined by Winterland habitues the Grateful Dead, and featuring, as one of their opening acts, the Blues Brothers.
The Blues Brothers remain one of music's most improbable success stories, a band fronted by two comedians, including a lead singer (John Belushi) who was actually a latecomer to the blues (Wikipedia says that he started listening to blues records in 1977 while filming Animal House), and both visually and sonically completely out of step with the prevailing disco trend of 1978. While Belushi and Aykroyd were already TV and film superstars (Animal House was released in the summer of 1978), this performance was just at the point where the Blues Brothers were taking off as a genuine music phenomenon - they debuted on Saturday Night Live in April 1978, Briefcase Full of Blues had been recorded live in September 1978 and was released in late November 1978 and would hit #1 on the Billboard album chart in February 1979, and Soul Man would be released as a single in January 1979 and peak at #4 on the pop charts in February 1979. The movie and a concert tour would follow in the summer of 1980. Belushi died in 1982, and while Aykroyd and the band have had other projects since, some of them musically productive, it's never been the same. They weren't just a comic novelty - the band, largely assembled by Paul Shaffer (then Saturday Night Live's musical director) was astonishingly talented, Belushi turned out to be a remarkable vocalist, and Aykroyd even contributed some impressive harmonica work. Their version of Jailhouse Rock may be the best Elvis cover ever, and arguably tops the original.
Anyway, the video clips are below the fold - it appears that this performance was televised and these were recorded off the TV.
Here's the opening, with the I Can't Turn You Loose intro and the classic Hey Bartender:
Here's Soul Man, featuring Belushi attempting to give a proper introduction to some of the amazingly accomplished musicians in the band:
A rousing version of B Movie Boxcar Blues:
I Don't Know - you can see Shaffer at work on the keys at a few points in this one:
And here's what appears to be the set closer, a blistering rendition of Jailhouse Rock (Belushi's voice is a little rough at the opening, but gets better as he goes):
Sadly, I couldn't find any YouTube video of the Dead's performance that night, but here's a really excellent audio-only clip of Looks Like Rain from a Winterland performance two months earlier to get you in the mood: