To mark the 20th anniversary of the opening of the first House of Blues in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dan Aykroyd and the Blues Brothers will open for Texas rockers ZZ Top Tuesday at the venue’s Los Angeles Sunset Boulevard location. The actor will inhabit his legendary alter-ego Elwood Blues alongside Jim Belushi and the 12-piece Blues Brothers Band.
The performance, however, is only the beginning: over the coming months Aykroyd is set to travel across the country, visiting many of the House of Blues’ 13 locations, as part of a celebration and planned overhaul of the iconic venue, including updated dining options and an emphasis on bringing in the hottest up-and-coming live music acts.
“House of Blues is going to be more vibrant than it has been in the last 10 years,” Aykroyd, 60, tells Rolling Stone. “We’re moving on from the stage of complacency after survival. That’s over now. The survival has been established.”
Financially successful in its early years, House of Blues – whose stages have been graced by Stevie Wonder, Aerosmith, Kanye West and Jay-Z, to name a few – was hit especially hard by the economic downturn in the wake of 9/11. In order to “keep it alive and save 2000-plus jobs,” as Aykroyd says, the venue was sold to Live Nation in 2006.
“We were very happy to do that,” he says. Unlike similar companies, such as Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe, House of Blues did not have to file for bankruptcy. “House of Blues stayed alive and did not have to go into restructuring . . . although we came very close,” Aykroyd explains. “Live Nation now has an asset that they realize is a pretty hip and cool brand.”
Aykroyd, along with Judy Belushi, wife of the late comedian and Blues Brothers founding member John, co-founded House of Blues in 1992 with Hard Rock Cafe founder Isaac Tigrett. The venue, as Aykroyd explains, was created in an effort to “build the best jukejoint the nation has ever seen.” Tigrett brought Aykroyd into the fold feeling that the actor-musician’s continued association with the Blues Brothers would be an asset to the new venue.
“He wanted to honor the sprit of the rural venues that were popular in the South for blues musicians,” Aykroyd says. “Build concert halls in a manner that hadn’t been done since the Forties or Fifties.”
Revisiting the founding of House of Blues has allowed Aykroyd to revisit the origins of the Blues Brothers. He speaks excitedly about his mission with fellow Saturday Night Live alum Belushi to celebrate African-American cultural contributions and honor the lives work of musicians such as Big Walter Horton, John Lee Hooker and James Brown – all of whom Aykroyd was thrilled to include in the Blues Brothers’ 1980 comedy.
“Our mission was and is to show the venerable of the venerated and to celebrate them,” he says.
But Tuesday’s performance promises to be bittersweet. Donald “Duck” Dunn, the iconic Stax bassist and a founding member of the Blues Brothers, passed away this past May at the age of 70.
“Duck was a key advisor to us,” Aykroyd says, adding that it was Dunn who convinced he and Belushi to include a cover of Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man” on their triple-platinum-selling 1978 debut album, Briefcase Full of Blues. The song would go on to hit Number 14 on the Billboard 100. “He was the life of the band and one of the funniest people I’ve known in my life,” Aykroyd says.
Aykroyd says he’s convinced that if Belushi were alive, he’d still be an active participant in the Blues Brothers. Belushi would also have an unexpected primary occupation: “He would be one of the top directors on Broadway,” Aykroyd claims. “He was really, truly an intellectual when it came to understanding theater and performance.”