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House of Blues: King of the Midsize Show

Sold more tickets in 2009 than any club in the world

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Launched in Cambridge, Mass., in 1992, the House of Blues now operates 12 locations around the country. Photos by Kristyn Ulanday

Landsdowne Street was once synonymous with live music in Beantown. In the late ’80s and ’90s, a smattering of clubs, pubs, and dance halls studded the sloping road hugging the eastern wall of Fenway Park. Today, a lone establishment presides: the House of Blues. But with some 250 shows staged in 2009, and more tickets sold than any other club on the planet last year according to industry trade publication Pollstar, the back-alley, Voodoo-spirited venue makes up for the absence of seminal head-thrashing space like Axis and Avalon, nightclubs that shut down in 2007.

The eclectic décor throughout the House of Blues, and in its Southern Delta–style restaurant downstairs, is decidedly blues-mojo-cum-backswamp-juke-joint, almost self-consciously so. Some of the walls are quilted with colorful gypsy patchwork and adorned with folk paintings of old-time musicians. Much of the “outsider” artwork, though, has a corporate patina, a reminder that music has been monetized to the teeth. The HOB gift shop doesn’t help dispel the notion. Born in 1992 across the river in a converted Cambridge house, the House of Blues now boasts 12 locations across the country and is owned by California-based live entertainment company Live Nation.

But on to the music. You’re here to be knocked off your feet, not to stare at the walls. The club draws an impressive array of top-notch acts, veteran and emerging, from the Black Crowes, the Pogues, and Snoop Dogg to Ratatat, Of Montreal, and Miike Snow. There’s something for everyone most every night of the week. The space can hold some 2,000 pairs of pumping fists and stomping feet. Beneath the spare, intimate stage, according to the website, rests a box of mud from the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of the blues.

The club comprises three levels, all of which have bars and pleasant-enough bartenders (drinks are predictably pricey: beers start at $6, bottled water is $4). Arrive when doors open and you can get close enough to the stage to scrutinize your favorite artist’s nose rings. The second-floor mezzanine is a three-sided railed cutout overlooking the dance floor. Snag space at the iron bars and you’ll feel like a golden god, à la Robert Plant circa 1975. Sometimes, one ticket allows you access to both the first and second floors, sometimes not. The third, most expensive, level hosts rows of theater-style seats, with a comfortable, unobstructed view of the action.

Last week, my wife, Chris, and I caught former Guns n’ Roses guitarist Slash, picking up a pair of cheap mezzanine-only tickets that for some reason were checked at least five times from the outside to the upstairs. Watching the shaggy rocker stalk the stage, a cloud of black hair beneath his trademark top hat, as he blistered the ceiling with extended solos, I thought about that container of Mississippi sludge beneath his Converse sneakers. The unseen heart, the shrinking space rock ’n’ roll now operates in. I was glad that such midsize venues still thrive, but lamented the absence of others.

Also palpably missing, of course, was volatile, banshee-screaming Gn’R frontman Axl Rose, as some in the crowd made abundantly clear. Not sure if folks were actually expecting a surprise reconciliation show (Slash and Rose haven’t spoken since 1996) or just enjoyed cursing the darkness. Under the thin wash of colored light, the sinewy, high-wailing Myles Kennedy, of Alter Bridge, more than held his own, a suitable prosthetic for the phantom Rose on the Gn’R songs Slash tossed out, including “Civil War,” “Rocket Queen,” “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” and “Paradise City.’ For all the crunching, distorted chords and searing riffs, the sound was crisp and rattled around inside you like a pinball, made you feel 10 feet tall again.

“This is rock ’n’ roll,” Kennedy said. “This is about freedom.”

Security apparently didn’t get the memo—it was as tight as a librarian’s bun. They might as well have shaken rulers for emphasis. I’m not sure if this had to do with the mostly male, black-T-shirted, weaned-on-alienation crowd. An hour earlier, with the railings packed three and four eager fans deep, Chris and I sat on the floor by the wall while we waited for Slash to stub out his cigarette and scoop up his guitar picks. Within seconds, we were instructed to our feet, told it was a fire hazard. A section closest to the stage had been partially roped off and one foot across the line brought a beefy yellow-shirted guard to move you off. “It’s almost like they want to make sure you don’t get a good view,” Chris complained. At one point, I’d resigned myself to watching the closed-circuit TV sets on the walls, trying to be happy about breathing the same air as an adolescent idol. It created a jarring tension in the joint: the spirit of rock ’n’ roll on stage bucking against the strictness of a venue built on that same spirit.

But the authorities, thankfully, capped the number of fans on the mezzanine level and once Slash took the stage, it didn’t take too long to frame the hard rocker between a few shoulders and sets of big hair. For $29 (plus fees, of course), it wasn’t a bad picture. The ecstatic crowd below writhed under the crackling electricity pouring off the stage. And we were treated to two solid hours of tough, teeth-rattling rock. I saw no disgruntled faces, no fans watching wall monitors. On the mezzanine, it was all about the angles. Once you found the right one, the view was pretty good, the music pretty tight, and all pretty much forgiven. It’s only rock ’n’ roll, after all…

House of Blues restaurant hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 4 p.m. to midnight. Closed Sunday and Monday unless there’s a show.
Drinks: beers start at $6, bottled water is $4.
Live music is offered most evenings—check the schedule and buy tickets here; 18-plus, depending on the show—again, check the schedule.
 Prices depend on the artist and seating area. Some shows are as low as $10, but most floor and mezzanine-level tickets are in the $25 to $50 range.
15 Lansdowne St., Boston, Mass. 02215
888-693-2583 (BLUE)
MBTA: Take the Green Line B or C trolley to Kenmore Square, or walk.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

This is part of a weekly series featuring Boston nightspots of interest to the BU community. If you have any suggestions for places we should feature, leave them in the comments section below.

Read about more nightspots around the area here.

 

4 Comments

4 Comments on House of Blues: King of the Midsize Show

  • Anonymous on 09.23.2010 at 3:49 am

    Myles Kennedy is not formerly of Alter Bridge, he is still in Alter Bridge and they just recorded a new CD coming out next month.

  • Nate on 09.23.2010 at 12:14 pm

    HoB Boston’s security used to be incredibly lax. You could sneak anything you wanted into the venue, smoke inside without hassle, sit/stand wherever you want, and move relatively freely between levels, as there were fewer ticket takers/security guards. During the summer of 2009, however, two underage kids got plastered, passed out in the bathroom, and had to carted out on stretchers. Now the place is “tight as a librarian’s bun”. The security is almost militant. At the KiD CuDi show last winter, at BU affiliated show, the guards were turning people away at the door for smelling like booze, even if the person was of age. The atmosphere was definitely changed. You feel like a POW at some points during the night, and the tickets are damn expensive, but I hate to admit that, next to renovated Paradise (you have you go), it’s probably the best venue in Boston. So, go get hassled and enjoy a show. The sound system is worth it.

  • Clayton on 09.23.2010 at 3:18 pm

    Too bad the people that work at the House of Blues (Restaurant) are consistently rude and unprofessional. Once when a friend and I went there for a late dinner our waiter informed us that the kitchen staff had “disappeared” despite the fact that they were serving food for another hour. On another occasion, I was having drinks with a few friends and asked a server for a menu to which she replied “You’re not going to order food are you?”

  • Stevo on 09.30.2010 at 10:40 am

    HoB is soul less. And the uptight security often takes away from an enjoyable show experience. I considered Avalon a midsize venue and I miss it. Although I still see bands I really like @ HoB (we don’t really have a choice, do we?), this expensive and characterless venue makes me second guess going to a show.

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