House of Lightnin'
Now open just under two weeks, House of Blues Houston has immediately set a high standard — not just for other music venues in the city, but for itself. A corporate-owned multimillion-dollar shrine to a style of music born of racism, poverty and deprivation is by definition ironic (at the least), but walk around the place a little and it starts to make a strange kind of sense.
Houston is a city where the blues remains more culturally present than most places — in fact, almost anywhere outside Chicago, Memphis and maybe New Orleans — and in many ways, House of Blues could rightly be called a 21st-century juke joint. Albeit most certainly one with 21st-century prices.
HOB's corporate parent, partially Houston-based entertainment megacorp Live Nation, may have spared no expense, but everything about the multistory facility at 1204 Caroline is obviously designed to foster a down-home, intimate atmosphere. The dining room is festooned with folk-art portraits of stock Southern scenes and musicians like Janis Joplin; the furniture could have come from the parlor of some New Orleans antebellum estate.
And don't think House of Blues doesn't know its local history. A pantheon of Texas blues greats, including Houstonians Lightnin' Hopkins and Albert Collins, peers out over the dining room from a massive mural. Upstairs, the lounge adjacent to the 1,200-capacity main hall has been christened the Bronze Peacock, HOB's tip of the fedora to the Fifth Ward nightclub owned by Houston record mogul Don Robey where T-Bone Walker, among many others, became a star.
As a venue, the music hall is A-plus. The upstairs balcony seating is virtually on top of the stage, and there's not a bad sightline in the downstairs general-admission area. The sound is impeccable, and the drinks are as stiff as they are steep.
Noise lost his HOB virginity, as it were, in about the coolest way imaginable: Watching Jay-Z and his dozen-man band tear through the Brooklyn rapper's phone-book-thick catalog — topped by the thunderstruck, "Back in Black"-borrowing "99 Problems" — as Bun B, several Houston Texans (and Texans Cheerleaders) and the rest of the sold-out house got their swerve on in high style. Missing, strangely enough, was Mrs. Jay-Z, but he got a big laugh when the band lit into the first few bars of his and Beyoncé's 2003 hit "'03 Bonnie & Clyde" before abruptly switching to another song.
Two nights later, the invite-only, see-and-be-seen grand-opening gala headlined by the Blues Brothers Band was a textbook manifestation of House of Blues' strange duality. Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and their revue of largely Texas-born top session musicians stoked the revelry with R&B/soul chestnuts like "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Land of 1,000 Dances" (Noise's pick of the night) and plenty of mugging, including the ever-popular bring-a-bunch-of-hot-girls-onstage-to-dance maneuver.
The show was exciting and fun as all get-out; Noise is fairly certain there were a few more empty seats than usual at several leading Houston churches Sunday. But deep down, much deeper than anyone on hand cared to delve with all that dancing going on, it felt somehow hollow: the blues as more of a brand than a band.
This, of course, is House of Blues' critics' chief complaint: The chain has sacrificed the blues' integrity at the altar of capitalism, turning one of America's richest musical resources into a means to make a mint off Jake and Elwood sunglasses. Fair enough. Perhaps.
First of all, no bluesman or woman, alive or dead, has ever walked down to the crossroads with any other intention than to find somebody willing to pay them to record their songs or play them live. And a significant amount of all those bar and restaurant receipts gets funneled into the International House of Blues Foundation, which funds several school and community programs whose sole aim is to educate people about who those musicians were and are, and just how fundamental the blues is to the makeup of modern American pop culture (and thus pop culture everywhere else on the globe).
Besides, you never know — some young Cobra Starship fan may be curious enough about that Lightnin' Hopkins portrait to Google him when he gets home. Not long after, he's downloaded "Black Cat Bone" and is impressed enough to put down the Nintendo Wii and pick up a guitar.
And remember, the blues didn't come anywhere close to being commercially successful or widely appreciated (outside the black community, of course) until English disciples like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and the Rolling Stones introduced them to millions of middle-class American rock and roll fans in the 1960s. Forty years on, this music has traded its status as the often bitter voice of black American social commentary (a mantle it ceded to funk and then hip-hop) for the affection of a dedicated class of music fans — largely but hardly exclusively white — whose appetite for the music is voracious and whose resources to consume it are considerable.
But the blues also survive because they have been enveloped into the domain of contemporary art. One need only drive from House of Blues to Third Ward artists' colony Project Row Houses at 2521 Holman — less than three miles — for convincing proof.
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.
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