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The same night HOB actually opened, October 11, Project Row unveiled its new installation Thunderbolt Special: The Great Electric Show and Dance After Sam Lightnin' Hopkins. Visiting artists Sherman Fleming, Charles Gaines, James Andrew Brown and Rice University Professor of Art George Smith, all African-American, each turned one of Project Row's vintage shotgun-style houses into a studio to create a work somehow keyed off Hopkins, who spent much of his life in the neighborhood surrounding Project Row. Brooklyn- and Philadelphia-based Terry Adkins, Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, curated the installation and created three.
Each installation has at least one blowup of a Hopkins album cover on a wall, but otherwise they're as different as chalk and cheese, ranging from highly conceptual to elementally earthy. Gaines's "Black Ghost Blues Redux" is simply a stark video loop of an Asian-American art student listening to "Black Ghost Blues" before launching into her own grossly off-key rendition.
Fleming's "Carrier," which his program notes claim "draws its inspiration from the enduring sentimentality and scruffy determination of Lightnin' Hopkins' oeuvre," is dominated by a telephone pole stuck through the walls of its house. Like several other objects used in Thunderbolt Special's installations, the pole was salvaged a few blocks away.
"High Priest," "Wichita" and "Upperville," Adkins's three entries, each represent a different phase of Hopkins' life. "Upperville" evokes Hopkins's early years in rural East Texas with horse skulls and riding tack.
"Wichita," named after the street that was once upon a time the demarcation line between black and white Houston, features a half-ton concrete block found 100 yards or so down Holman Street and an oversized gavel representing Hopkins's jail time. "High Priest," meanwhile, looks at the singer's career, from the stack of plastic-encased lemons (Blind Lemon Jefferson was an early mentor) to an album cover depicting him at one of the many festivals he played in the '60s.
"What I like about his life is it's the great American triumph story," Adkins says. "He comes from humble beginnings, farm life, and rose to international stardom. And along the way, he never lost touch with the earth. He was a very earthy person, and a very good storyteller. I admire the fact that he remained loyal to his community."
Adkins's motive behind Thunderbolt Special is the same travesty many Houston music minders have been lamenting for years — the lack of any public memorial to or civic acknowledgement of Hopkins in his hometown. This is a central theme of the Hopkins chapter in Dr. Roger Wood's 2003 book Down in Houston; the story is the city doesn't like to build statues of or name things after people who have done time. Adkins did a exhibition in Philadelphia devoted to singer Bessie Smith for the same reason, but turns out to have a much deeper personal connection to Hopkins.
"I was introduced to him because he and my grandfather, if you listened to them on a voice recorder, they would sound exactly alike," Adkins says. "He was the first relative of mine who died; I was very close to him. So [hearing] Lightnin' Hopkins, I thought my grandfather had recorded the stuff."
Adkins says he's working on creating such a monument, fashioned after an old bus stop — Hopkins was a huge mass-transit man, famously drumming up liquor money busking on crosstown routes. Furthermore, adds Project Row director Rick Lowe, there's enough room on the property for the memorial to function as an actual bus stop without getting the city (or Metro, for that matter) involved at all.
Sounds great, and long overdue. But Noise also thinks House of Blues and Thunderbolt Special make fine memorials to Hopkins as well. HOB stands as a (literal) monument to the vast influence and enduring appeal of the music Hopkins helped popularize, Thunderbolt Special to the highly personal nature of Hopkins' music and the febrile creative expression it continues to foment. Each is very Houston, too: HOB opulent yet homey, Thunderbolt Special scrappy and deceptively deep.
So would Hopkins play House of Blues if he were alive today? Noise interviewed Aykroyd, who co-founded House of Blues in 1992 and probably knows more about the blues than even motorcycles, UFOs or comedy, last Friday at the venue and asked him that very thing.
"Sure," Aykroyd said. "If we paid him enough."
Noise suspects that wouldn't be much of a problem at all for House of Blues, and that once he was well-fed, had a drink or two in him and started picking out those iconic notes on his guitar, Lightnin' would likewise feel right at home in HOB's Bronze Peacock.