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Cambridge has a new House of Blues in Harvard Sq.

House of Blues
In Harvard Square.
Opening to the public November 26.

By Rich Payne
and Douglas D. Keller

Photography Editor

these three words sum up our reaction to the House of Blues, a new blues club in Harvard Square across from Grendel's Den. The townhouse itself would be inconspicuous if it were not painted blue and did not have a dilapidated Dodge out front with a loudspeaker on top. As yet the lower level is unfinished, but it will soon house the Blues Basement, a broadcast-ready performance area for the showcase of blues talent via nationally syndicated programs. The first floor, which serves as the restaurant area, has booths, tables, and a bar. The second floor is the heart of the House of Blues. At the far end is a 10 by 20 foot raised stage for bands. This level should hold about 200 people, and has two bars and a DJ loft above it.

The House of Blues is the brainchild of Isaac Tigrett, founder of the Hard Rock Cafe, and is co-owned by, among others, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, John Candy, Judy Belushi, and Pat Lyons and his brothers (who collectively run Avalon, Venus de Milo, and Axis). The House also has strong ties to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and its director, Dr. Bill Ferris. The House is seen as a site to celebrate the glory that is the Blues and will take one of America's original art forms to unprecedented new heights of popularity and acclaim.

At the private grand opening, Dr. Ferris spoke of the blues as a music of intersections and crossroads, which can act to heal society and serve as a medicine for the soul. Tigrett sees the House as a place for blues lovers to gather and as a venue for blues artists to air their craft. Local as well as national artists are expected to play the House, and if the opening night is any indication, to jam together as well.

The artwork in the House of Blues is eclectic in its media, but unified by a common theme. The works are comprised of battery casings, pressed tin, and beads, as well as paintings on canvas and wood. The artistic style is known as "Outside Art," and is primitive in form, yet expressive. The artists are themselves blues players from the Delta area of Louisiana and Mississippi. Their art speaks to the religious and populist roots of the blues. The images include crucifixes, stars of David, marriages, schools, and several shrunken heads. On the ceilings of the first and second floors are individually lit panels, which in plaster relief depict blues masters such as Etta James, Professor Longhair, Jimi Hendrix, B. B. King, and Robert Johnson, among others. Around the border of each square portrait are the titles of four well-known songs by each artist.

The food is a strong feature in the House and has a regional feel, with selections representing southwestern, cajun, New England, and Indian cuisine. The menu has fixed dishes such as tandoori chicken, quesadillas, jambalaya, pizza, blue clam chowder, and spicy chicken legs, and will also have many specials. We don't recommend the chicken legs, but the rest of the food was outstanding, particularly the various types of pizza baked in the restaurant's hand-made pizza oven. Of particular note are the catfish nuggets, which Rich describes as light and tender and "much better than fish sticks." The bar was well-stocked, with liquors including Blackened Voodoo Lager and a nice dry champagne. The drinks are served in blue glassware by friendly Blues Brothers and Sisters. We have no data on the prices for drinks or food, but they should be comparable to those at the Hard Rock Cafe.

The heart of the House of Blues is music, and the music is blues. The house music play list includes a mix of old and modern blues, including Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, the Doors, Jeff Healey, Aerosmith, Jeff Beck, Etta James, the Black Crowes, and Eric Clapton. Around the first and second floors are TV monitors which display running bios of each artist as their music is played, showing the album cover and information about the album and specific track.

The acoustics of the second floor performance area are very conducive to hearing the blues. Every nuance of the music, from the high hat to the wailing guitars, is clear. The stage seems very crowded with more than four or five musicians, but guitar players are able to move around the stage and down into the crowd.

Guests for the opening night included Cambridge mayor Kenneth Reeves, Cam Neely and other celebrities, members of Governor Weld's staff, investors, members of the press, and construction workers who were putting the finishing touches on the House. Opening night acts included the Patterson Chorale (a local gospel choir), "Big Mike" Welch (a 13 year-old local blues guitar prodigy), and the headlining Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson. Joining Luther were Son Seals and Eddy Clearwater, both on lead guitar. All the groups were backed up by Luther's band. The House really began to swing when Luther, Son, Eddy and "Big Mike" held a four-way lead guitar jam on stage. The performances drew from several blues styles.

Above all else, the House is striving to bring the blues to Cambridge. Every Sunday, there will be a non-denominational gospel hour followed by a traditional Southern brunch. The House of Blues is also working to bring blues to the young through a program called "Blues in Schools." Whether you are a die-hard blues fan or have never experienced the blues, we recommend a visit or two to the House of Blues, for in the words of Willie Dixon, "the blues are the roots, and the other music are the fruits."