HOB: Where's The Blues?

from Jon Johnson - July 11, 2003

(NON-ROCKABILLY) - This has a fair amount of local content that probably isn't of much interest to non-Bostonians. But it's always amusing to watch the suits try to justify why they've strayed so far from their original vision for their business. From the Boston Herald:

"House of (not much) blues: Blues music continues to disappear from its traditional venues."
By Josh B. Wardrop/ Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2003
           In the beginning, there was the blues and nothing but the blues. In fact, during a big opening-night party no less an authority than Elwood Blues ("Blues Brother" and club co-owner Dan Aykroyd) stood on stage of the jam-packed House of Blues in Harvard Square and declared: "For blues musicians and fans, this is their home."
           But somewhere between that promising night in November 1992 and now, the dream of Aykroyd and the other House of Blues investors to create a chain of nightclubs "dedicated to exposing and preserving the blues" has been lost.
           Last month, of the 29 acts that headlined the Cambridge House of Blues, only four - The Yardbirds, John Mayall, slide guitarist Roy Rogers and Roomful of Blues - are artists that make their living moanin' the blues.
           That's a far cry from the days when Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson, Son Seals, Robert Lockwood Jr. or even locals like the Rick Russell Band and the then-12-year-old local sensation "Little Mike" Welch were regulars. And it's a big departure from a venue that was initially so committed to blues history that it was partly built with floorboards from Muddy Waters' boyhood home.
           Welch, now known as "Monster Mike," recalls the early days of the Cambridge HOB with the wide-eyed excitement of youth, while seeing the modern HOB with the unclouded, bottom-line pragmatism of a professional.
           "I started out at exactly the same time as that club, and for House of Blues, it all changed when they became a corporate chain," says Welch. "At the Los Angeles office, they're not looking at the Cambridge HOB and seeing 'Rick Russell, local blues legend.' They're seeing numbers on paper."
           Certainly, HOB isn't alone in its decision to move away from booking blues acts. To local blues musicians, it's all part of a disturbing trend at Boston area clubs.
           "I'll always play blues music, I'll never give it up," says Cheryl Arena, a blues harmonica player and vocalist, "but I'm really starting to think about what else I can do to stay alive."
           Arena and other blues veterans can recall the days when Bunratty's, Paul's Mall, Ed Burkes, the Channel and the 1369 all booked blues acts. Other clubs that were once blues strongholds - Johnny D's, Harpers Ferry and HOB - are moving away from booking blues, too. For artists like Arena, this has meant go west (or north, or south), or go bust.
           "I play places like the Yard Rock Cafe in Quincy, or The Rynborn in Antrim, N.H.," says Arena. "But, it's just getting hard to find any regular work. I've never had more than one or two Friday or Saturday nights off in a year. This year, I've had more than I can count.
           "We played the HOB about once a month when Isaac Tigrett opened the place," she adds. "Then, [former HOB booker] Teo Leyasmayer came in with his national connections and brought in more big names, which was fine, but it took away opportunities for locals. And then he left - and he was the last guy there trying to keep the blues alive. Honestly, I call it the 'House of No Blues' now."
           Lisa Bellamore, marketing and publicity manager for HOB Cambridge, says that the club is "still very committed to our original mission of embracing the culture of the blues," while at the same time admitting that such former HOB staples such as the weekly blues jam and the strong focus on local blues acts have been discontinued in favor of a booking philosophy that includes reggae, pop, rock and jam bands.
           Bellamore says that HOB's corporate offices in California have never imposed any directives on how many blues acts to book in a month. But she also believes the blues attracts a niche audience - a lot of the same people show up for blues shows.
           "We always have to wonder, will this same audience come out six or seven times a month if we book that many blues shows?" says Bellamore
           Leyasmeyer, a veteran performer who's played piano for such legends as Buddy Guy and the late John Lee Hooker, left his job as booker for HOB Cambridge in February, after 10 years. "I was told, flatly, by the home office in L.A. that HOB Cambridge was going to be changing its musical direction to emerging college rock bands," he says. "I understand it as a logical business decision for the club, but it wasn't my field of expertise, so I decided to leave."
           "The truth is, there really aren't as many blues players from the old school that draw like they once did," says Dana Westover, booking agent at Johnny D's in Somerville for more than 15 years. "We still have one of the longest-running blues jams in the state going each week. It still holds its own, and we're committed to it. But, the bottom line is that we have a capacity of 300, and on a weekend, we've got to be able to draw 250 people to make a show work, financially."
           As a young artist on the scene, 20-year-old Lydia Warren doesn't recall the days when blues artists had a plethora of in-city gigging options. For her, a busy concert schedule has always meant being willing to travel outside of Boston and Cambridge. "We do a lot of gigs in western Mass., New Hampshire and Maine," she says. "It seems the more rural we get, the more people tend to like the blues."
           Peter Bochner, co-owner of the Sit 'n Bull Pub in Maynard, confirms that although attendance is generally down in the industry, the blues has remained a strong draw at his club. He estimates that of the 15 live shows the venue has booked for July, six of them are blues-related acts - from local acts Geezer and The Fat City Band, to nationally known names such as guitar great Ronnie Earl and ex-Monkee Peter Tork and his band, Shoe Suede Blues.
           Bochner, who lived in the city before having a family and settling in the suburbs, says that many of the hardcore blues fans have done the same thing. That move westward may be a big reason why the blues seem to do better outside the big city. "Certainly, I notice that the crowds we have for blues tend to be older, largely in their 40s, and at that age the trend is to move out to the suburbs," says Bochner.
           Bellamore feels that the future of live blues depends on the next crop of young musicians to make their names. "The biggest acts in blues - B.B. King, Jimmy Smith - are aging," she says. "Who's coming up in the industry that can fill their shoes? That's what will decide the future of the genre."
           Meanwhile, Cheryl Arena says that she and her husband Matt, a guitarist, are thinking about moving to Florida. "I'm considering it," she says. "What's kept me here all these years are the great people and the work. And now a lot of that is gone."

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