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On a Mission From God: Blues Brothers Tribute Friday at the Flagler Auditorium

| November 18, 2010

jake elwood blues brothers bluzmen john belushi dan aykroyd

Jake and Elwood reborn.

It’s the kind of irony John Belushi would have loved: Flagler County schools spent the last three weeks in contortions over the cancellation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the play about—among other things—whites’ stupidity toward blacks that was to be staged by Flagler Palm Coast High School’s Drama Club at the Flagler Auditorium. And here, Friday night, on the Flagler Auditorium stage, is “Bluzmen,” dubbed the “Ultimate Tribute to the Blues Brothers”—two white guys’ loving, screaming, riotous tribute to black culture.

The original Blues Brothers were “on a mission from God,” as one of their famous lines went, not only to save the orphanage where they grew up, but to joyfully remind the world that without black culture not only would they be nothing—the blues, let alone the Blues Brothers, would not exist, nor would jazz, nor would R&B or any gospel worth listening to—but American culture would have been a pasty, soulless imitation of current riches.

What you have to remember about Bluzmen is that it’s the tribute of a tribute of a tribute: Eric Martin and Carmen Romano are the two actor-singers who not only play Jake and Elwood Blues, the characters created by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi a quarter century ago, but who, in effect, play Aykroyd and Belushi as well: their physical look and demeanor are intended to replicate four characters, not two. After 18 years and 9,000 performances, Martin and Romano could be considered, if not the Blues Brothers’ twins, at least their step-twins.

They have in some ways upstaged their founding brothers. The publicity material bullets the fact that they were the first American “performing group” to play in Russia after the 1989 fall of the Iron Curtain (though that was really a scheduling fluke: by then the Soviet Union was in full Glasnost mode, Russian stages were just another tour stop for innumerable western acts, and the blues have and remain European favorites in whatever guise). They’ve played on every Vegas stage, numerous television stages and regional theater stages from here to Oregon.

The Original Blues Brothers: Twisting With Ray Charles

It’s a high-energy show, starting with “I Can’t Turn You Loose”  the Otis Redding classic with the tempo of a runaway bullet train and ending with “Shout,” the 1959 Isley Brothers single that played a prominent part in “Animal House,” the John Belushi vehicle filmed the year of Belushi’s conversion to the blues. (Belushi died of a heroin and cocaine overdose in 1982.)

Those stories aren’t told in the show, which is more about the music and the characters than their genesis. It’s entirely possible to enjoy the show on its own merits. But a tribute to the Blues Brothers can’t be fully appreciated without a fuller understanding of the origins of that duo in its time and place.

The Blues Brothers were never meant to be the phenomenon they became, especially since Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were not musicians. They were comedians. But when they took off on Saturday Night Live, Aykroyd would play the harmonica with the show’s band to warm up the audience before going live, and before long he was dragging Belushi into the act. Howard Shore, the SNL music director at the time, would introduce them jokingly as “those brothers in blue, the Blues Brothers.” The tag stuck.

Aykroyd had a bar in Manhattan at the time called the Blues Bar where the cast would end up after the shows, and where he and Belushi honed their act until the Blues Brothers finally made an appearance on Saturday Night live, with Carrie Fisher the guest-host. The Blues Brothers’ live debut took place, as it turned out, on November 18, 1978. Friday’s performance, in other words, might as well be their 32nd anniversary.

By then the duo was a legitimate act, complete with a band put together by Aykroyd and Paul Shaffer, who became David Letterman’s music director. The movie was an afterthought. The Blues Brothers became so popular on Saturday Night Live that turning it into a feature-length story seemed natural. The 1980 movie cost $30 million, or $80 million in today’s dollars, and featured epic car chases and wrecks. The New York Times didn’t like it: There isn’t a moment of ‘The Blues Brothers’ that wouldn’t have been more enjoyable if it had been mounted on a simpler scale,” Janet Maslin wrote. “Too many extras. Overstaged dance numbers. And a hollowness that certainly didn’t come cheap. A film that moved faster and called less attention to its indulgences might never convey, as ‘The Blues Brothers’ does in all but its jolliest moments, such unqualified despair.”

Audiences didn’t agree, and with Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown and Cab Calloway thrown in there, how could they? It was among the highest-grossing movie of the year and remains one of the highest grossing musicals in the genre’s history. It also entered the culture as a permanent marker of visual puns (the two guys in white-shirted suits and dark shades) and references. A sequel written by Aykroyd and the original’s director (John Landis) came out to equally unenthusiastic reviews in 2000.

What made both was the music. That’s what the Bluzmen will recreate on the Flagler Auditorium stage tonight.

Bluzmen will have one show only at the Flagler Auditorium Friday, Nov. 19, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, call 386/437-7547.

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