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:

Rubber Biscuit:

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:

6 thoughts on “A Bluesy New Year, 1979”

  1. Crank,
    You brought up one of my all-time favorites – the Blues Brothers. I have the Blues Brothers – the Definitive Collection, which has the live versions of all those songs. Along with those you posted, I’m a big fan of Hey Bartender, and probably my all-time favorite, Sweet Home Chicago. Due it’s length, the movie cuts out most of the great instrumental work on that song, but the whole thing is on the CD. Incredible back-up band is right.
    What I liked most is that they re-popularized the idea of blues/rock with a horn section, along with all those great covers. Sadly, horns aren’t used as often as I’d like them to be.

  2. the Blues Brothers movie got me into listening to the old Stax stuff, Ray Charles, Aretha, etc. Great movie, great band.

  3. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Belushi a “remarkable” singer, but I think anyone who has heard Bruce Willis try to sing would concede he was very good for a relative amatuer. And Ackroyd was the one with the real love of the blues. The band, which had played behind Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett and Sam and Dave, really was excellent.

  4. The Blues Brothers were made up of a great backup band. Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn of Stax fame. Matt “Guitar” Murphy a terrifc bluesman in his own right. Plus solid other R&B musicians.
    Belushi was OK. He sang with heartand flare, but had little talent. Muddy Waters, Otis Redding, etc. he was not.
    At the start, Ackroyd was a downright poor harp player, but he has since gotten much better. He is no James Cotton, Paul Butterfield, Little Walter, etc. but he doesn’t stink up the joint now.
    Blues Brother were not really a blues band, but rather a R&B band playing in the Stax tradition. But if you are from Chicago, you gotta call it the blues!
    I like their stuff but if it was not for the backup band, they would be awful.

  5. “B Movie Boxcar Blues” from the Briefcase live album is (imo) the absolute pinnacle for the Blues Brothers.
    Love that tune. I had all those albums on vinyl, and now I am headed to iTunes so I can hear it for the first time in years.

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