Happy 90th Birthday, George Bush Sr.: A Rousing R&B Salute

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A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert Directed by David Deutsch Shout! Factory, 120 min., $19.98

"Tonight is not a night for politics," says a well-coiffed man at the microphone with an unmistakable Southern drawl at the beginning of this concert. "Tonight is the night for music and blues!"

At first, the statement might seem fantastical, because of the man who uttered it: one Lee Atwater, an advisor to President Ronald Reagan, then campaign director for the Bush-Quayle ticket in 1988 and later chairman of the Republican National Committee. To him, everything was about politics.

Atwater was for Bush Sr. -- who turns 90 years old Thursday -- what Karl Rove was to Bush Jr., and ultimately destroyed the Michael Dukakis campaign with smart and many would say subversive techniques such as the "Willie Horton" attack ad.

But the then-37-year-old Atwater was even more passionate about music, specifically blues, R&B and soul. And as part of the Bush inaugural festivities, he put together this once-in-a-lifetime dream concert whose documentation was nearly lost forever.

A galaxy of stars from the stables of Chess (Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Koko Taylor), and Stax (Carla Thomas, Sam Moore, Eddie Floyd, William Bell), shared the stage with icons of soul (Chuck Jackson, Percy Sledge), N'awlins (Dr. John), and fiery blues guitarists and harmonicats (Albert Collins, Joe Louis Walker, Delbert McClinton), all under the musical direction of Billy Preston with crack session musicians including Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn.

Oh, and, yeah, a mini-set from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble with big brother Jimmie Vaughan to boot.

While Sledge and Diddley's numbers disappoint a bit for their obvious show-offiness, and McClinton has a bit too much stage time, the highlights here are many.

They include Jackson's very virile take on his hit "Any Day Now," Walker's burning "747," Dixon and Taylor exchanging a lifetime of bawdiness on "Wang Dang Doodle," Moore's going-to-church "Soul Man," and Thomas and Preston's heartbreaking duet on "When Something is Wrong with My Baby."

Of course, the Vaughan brothers, together and in their prime, end things on a historic note. The next year, Stevie Ray would be dead in a helicopter crash, so this footage is priceless. Especially when the pair with Double Trouble back Collins on his signature instrumental, "Frosty," and then their showstopping turn for the two on "Texas Flood."

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Guests of Honor President George and Barbara Bush did make a brief stop at the show on their tour of balls and parties that night. And while a photo of Atwater, Sam Moore and Bush slinging a specially made-guitar emblazoned with "The Prez" on it made all the papers, due to restrictions this and any audience footage has been excised. Which is just fine!

That this DVD even exists is something of a fluke miracle. The concert -- whose official title was the somewhat incongruous "Celebration for Young Americans" -- was filmed and recorded on then state-of-the-art equipment for a possible TV special that never happened.

Then the audio and video masters disappeared, while backups were found in varying conditions. A painstaking restoration process which took years followed, but you wouldn't know any of that watching and listening to this near pristine result.

Lee Atwater died in 1991 at age 40 from a brain tumor. And while toward the end he showed some regret and remorse over some of his political moves, to music fans, this DVD is his real legacy.


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