News Article | 5/8/2007

House of Blues brings new hue to Dallas

It feels like a pressure cooker inside the old brick building in Victory Park. Buzz saws screech and hammers clang as construction workers scurry through a cloud of dust trying to get the House of Blues ready to open.

As the clock ticks in late April, tempers flare.

“You gotta check the [expletive] plan,” one worker barks at another.

There’s a lot riding on the House of Blues plan. When the 60,000-square-foot complex opens tonight in the former White Swan building, it’s bound to change concert-going in Dallas – possibly for the better, but maybe for the worse.

Fans of the upscale H.O.B. chain say the clubs are a comfortable, smoke-free antidote to the grimy dives where rock and pop shows are often held. In addition to a 1,600-capacity concert hall, Dallas’ House of Blues features a Southern-style restaurant, a 300-capacity performance space (the Cambridge Room) and a posh, members-only Foundation Room lounge with yearly admission starting at $2,250.

“Something about that formula is working – it’s the most successful chain of music clubs in North America,” says concert industry expert Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar.

But that formula rubs some people the wrong way: “It’s like Wal-Mart, with high pricing instead of low pricing,” says Granada Theater owner Mike Schoder, pointing to the $65-$100 tickets for Tuesday’s opening show by Erykah Badu. (Ticket prices for other H.O.B. shows can be as low as $15 and as high as $100.)

Of course, those higher prices come with a lush atmosphere fans rarely see at shows by Ms. Badu or the Old 97’s, who perform Friday. The walls are lined with African-American folk art and hand-painted murals, and there’s a 30-foot sculpture built from the busts of blues musicians. There are Buddha statues in the bar, crystal chandeliers in the women’s restrooms and 421 higher-priced seats in the balcony for concertgoers who don’t want to stand on the general-admission ground floor.

“We want to make guests happy, but we also want to hang on to the original down-and-dirty juke joint concept,” says John Tate, general manager of the Dallas club.

Keeping the juke in the joint might be easier said than done.

The chain began modestly in 1992, when Hard Rock Cafe founder Isaac Tigrett and Blues Brothers star Dan Aykroyd opened their first H.O.B. in Cambridge, Mass. Since then, 10 others have popped up from Las Vegas to Disney World. In July, the company was bought for $350 million by Live Nation, the Clear Channel spinoff that runs 117 concert venues, including Smirnoff Music Centre.

“If they start opening up a House of Blues in Des Moines, they may be extending the brand too far,” says Mr. Bongiovanni. “I don’t think Live Nation is going to turn them into a Planet Hollywood and replicate it everywhere – but we’ll see.”

The irony is that the more successful House of Blues has gotten, the further it’s traveled from the blues. Of the 75 shows booked so far in Dallas, there’s just one black blues act: Buddy Guy.

“The name ‘House of Blues’ is really a tribute to all American music,” says Mr. Tate, who previously worked at Chicago’s H.O.B. “We get a very eclectic mix of genres. That’s one thing we do better than anybody else.”

The initial batch of shows runs the gamut from the Icelandic death-metal band Dimmu Borgir to the kid-music act Ralph’s World.

There are American Idol stars (Bo Bice, Taylor Hicks), R&B legends (George Clinton), rappers (Bone Thugs-n-Harmony) and retro-rockers (B-52s, Pat Benatar, Psychedelic Furs).

Every Sunday, the concert hall will feature a gospel brunch, and several nights a week the Cambridge Room will host folk acts, alt-rock groups or tribute bands such as the female quartet Lez Zeppelin. Bands also will perform nightly in the 300-capacity restaurant.

Cut of the action

Food sales are expected to make up 30 percent of the revenue, and the club hopes to snare Victory Park diners from across-the-street neighbors Hooters and Dick’s Last Resort.

But it’s H.O.B.’s bands, not its chicken jambalaya, that worry promoters such as Mr. Schoder, owner of the 1,000-capacity Granada on Greenville Avenue.

“They have such buying power they get the pick of the artists, even artists I’ve worked with consecutive times,” he says. “It’s driven by fear, in a sense. If you take that date with that independent place, you won’t play at any other House of Blues.”

Mr. Bongiovanni agrees H.O.B. wields “a lot of negotiating power, but at the end of the day the artist decides where they want to play,” he says. “The other clubs won’t disappear.

“In Chicago, they’ve become one of the top clubs, but other clubs do well there, also. I don’t think anyone can dominate a music scene completely,” Mr. Bongiovanni says.

Mark Lee of 462 Inc. hopes that’s true. A Dallas concert promoter since the 1960s, he wonders if his business at the Lakewood Theater will survive the House of Blues.

“It casts an ominous shadow. The world’s becoming more corporate, and the competition is stiffer than ever before, so you have to be more creative” to survive, Mr. Lee says.

Mr. Tate of H.OB. declined to talk about the club’s booking policies, but he thinks Dallas is big enough for a wide range of concert spots.

“I love all the venues in this city,” he says. “But we give Dallas something different, something it’s never seen before.”

Another new player on the scene is the 2,800-capacity Palladium Ballroom south of downtown, in the Gilley’s building. It’s operated by AEG Live, the giant concert firm that also controls the sterile but well-run Nokia Theatre in Grand Prairie.

With the recent demise of Gypsy Tea Room, a smoky Deep Ellum club with obstructed views of the stage, House of Blues is part of a new wave of Dallas concert venues that aim to be pleasant and customer-friendly instead of trying to be cool.

Even House of Blues’ critics think that’s a step forward.

“Having nice places in Dallas with top-of-the-line sound and production … that’s a great thing,” says Mr. Schoder.

“You no longer have to see shows in a warehouse. Give the public quality venues, and they’ll embrace live music to a higher degree.”


Lésley Tellez / Quick

On a recent Tuesday, while we waited for Erykah Badu at a North Dallas recording studio, the sound engineer suddenly turned to us and said: “You do know she’s always late, right?”

Ms. Badu, who opens the House of Blues tonight, moves at her own pace. Not in a diva way – more meditative and thoughtful.

It’s been nearly four years since the earthy 36-year-old Dallas singer released an album. But she’s set to have a big year. Her new, as-yet-untitled album is due out in September and promises to be a throwback to Baduizm, her Grammy-winning first record. Two more records will follow after that, six months apart.

Ms. Badu’s also launched a new band called the Cannabinoids, made up of hip-hop producers and lyricists around town. They’ll perform tonight at the show’s official after-party.

Even though she’s still putting the finishing touches on her album, Ms. Badu was kind enough to sit down and offer us some insight into her work and life. Although she exudes sassiness and spunk onstage, in person she talked quietly, almost shyly.

You plan to release three albums in the next two years. That’s fast! Usually it’s been several years before you release something new.

Right, because there’s always a project that comes in between those projects, like a baby … And that comes first for me. I’m not pregnant, finally.

So you’ll finally be able to concentrate on yourself. What are you looking forward to most?

It’s me time. And I feel very selfish, but at the same time I’m equally generous with the ideas and with the creativity … The first album, I had no kids, and it was creative and it was just me that I was talking about and feeling. This feels similar to that time again.

What does Erykah Badu do on her me time?

I’m the weird girl … that’s what Dallas calls me. I have an herb garden that’s growing out of control right now due to this weird weather. I grow them and dry them and cook with them, and make herbs and give them to different friends. So I decided well, maybe I should go to school so that I could have some kind of certification to practice helping my family and other people. So … this weekend, if all goes well, I get my holistic health practitioner’s license.

How did the Cannabinoids come together?

A lot of people, friends and artists always associate me with being the one to help other artists, since I was the one who kind of poked a hole in the dam, so that the big flood waters could come through in my genre – “neo soul,” whatever that means … For the past 10 years, they’ve been saying, “She don’t ever do nothing for the artists in Dallas, blah blah blah.” I do. But at my own pace, and when I want to. And I had this really great idea. I thought: In order to continue to hone the creativity and the creative process, let’s create live onstage … So I decided to bring eight turntables, three MPs, two Tritons, a funk box, which I play, three laptops and one microphone – no rehearsal – to the stage. And I want people to see exactly how that energy flows around the stage and how it works, how our creative process really works, and how it works for you.

There is a definite mystery there, with not knowing. It sounds kind of scary at the same time.

That’s the feeling you want. You want the scary, along with the excitement … I just wanted to put some fire up under Dallas’ ass, if you will. Let’s move it. Let’s pop it. (laughs) Yeah, get us jumpin’ again, and moving around.

Why the House of Blues?

I have an obvious connection, from Blues Brothers 2000. (She was in the film.) Dan Aykroyd became one of my favorite people. He came to my house maybe a month ago. I let him hear some of the album. He was like, “Yeah, this is where it’s at. You’re opening the House of Blues.” I think maybe I was opening before that. (laughs) But yeah … The energy of the place gives me wings, really. It gives me – I don’t know, a floating experience. It’s the best sound in the country. Aesthetically, it feels like my house, with all the art.

You’re very involved in the Black Forest Theater. Are there any other projects in Dallas that you see yourself getting involved in?

People always say I do a lot, but I’m only beginning to touch not only South Dallas, but the city the way I want to. … Sometimes I wish that there could be a mandatory exit for everyone who passes from downtown back to Uptown or the north side of town, so they could ride through and see us, because we’re here and we’re people. … There’s a flower, there’s a lotus, that’s closed that we’re trying to open. … The newest words on the [Black Forest] billboard right now are: “You could either complain about the lack of flowers, or you can plant seeds.” So. We’re just trying to plant some seeds. I’m pretty excited about it.

Coming soon

Here’s a sampling of acts playing House of Blues’ 1,600-capacity concert hall. Prices don’t include service charges.

ERYKAH BADU, Tuesday, $65-$100

JOSS STONE, Wednesday, $30-$75

GEORGE CLINTON, Thursday, $27.50-$75

OLD 97’S, Friday, $22-$50

THE BLUES BROTHERS, Saturday (sold out)

KINGS OF LEON, May 13 (sold out)

DEFTONES, May 15-16, $28.50-$36


LIVE, May 18, $36-$75

MUSIQ SOULCHILD, May 20, $25-$75

BUDDY GUY, May 24, $27.50-$75

DIMMU BORGIR, May 25, $22-$45

JAGUARES, May 26, $42-$77

COWBOY MOUTH, May 27, $15.50-$25

ERIC JOHNSON, June 3, $26.50-$50

JOHNNY LANG, June 8, $37.50-$75

BO BICE, June 9, $21.50-$50

RALPH’S WORLD, June 16, $15

JOAN ARMATRADING, June 21, $30-$100

WOLFMOTHER, June 23, $22.50-$30

B-52’S, June 27, $50.50-$67

DICKEY BETTS, July 2, $25.50-$100

PAT BENATAR, July 19-20, $37.50-$75


PETER FRAMPTON, Aug. 29, $35-$100Thor Christensen