Mississippi Blues in Harvard Square
A new club, backed by Dan Aykroyd, aims to popularize the music form
ALL the initial indications said this was just another club opening. Every third man had a ponytail, cellular phones were as common as cocktail napkins, and a horde of people were wearing black. Here and there a logo featuring the scowls, shades, and fedoras of the Blues Brothers - Dan Aykroyd's Elwood and the late John Belushi's Jake - cropped up to remind you that this was the B.B. Blues Bar, a part of the House of Blues.
But there was more to this House of Blues, which opened here a few nights ago, than a marketing gimmick and a crowd of people yearning to be recognized.
For one thing, this little club - squeezed into a tiny, renovated clapboard house in the middle of Cambridge's Harvard Square - is really a blues temple. The walls are covered with pieces of folk art from the Mississippi Delta; lining the ceiling are plaster bas-relief portraits of blues performers. Echoing a line from the Blues Brothers movie, some of the promotional material declares: "We're on a mission from God."
An opening party a few nights ago featured fine, rippling blues from Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, but also a few cogent remarks from a college professor named Bill Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. "We are going to see blues as a kind of medicine of the soul," Dr. Ferris ventured, "that will bring us all back home as Americans and as human beings."
National salvation isn't usually part of the rhetoric at the christening of a nightspot, but the people behind House of Blues are indeed on a mission. One of them is Mr. Aykroyd, who combines a passion for the music with his comedic and acting talents.
The other major player is Isaac Tigrett, the man who put a Hard Rock Cafe in 16 cities. The pattern will repeat itself: If you live in Chicago, New Orleans, or Los Angeles, a House of Blues is coming to a neighborhood near you. And if the Hard Rocks are any guide, Houses of Blues will proliferate.
Mr. Tigrett says he wants to bring about a blues "resurgence." He and Prof. Ferris, along with Harvard University's Afro-American Studies department, are developing curricula for elementary and high schools on the blues, African-American folk-art forms, and race relations. Tigrett and Aykroyd plan to broadcast, record, and make videos of House of Blues performances, providing musicians with a new set of launching pads.
In the House's upstairs dance hall, Ferris talks about the "profound connections" between blues and its artistic manifestations. He points out a sculpture by a Leland, Miss., musician named James "Son" Thomas, a vertical coffin with several primitive renditions of skulls mounted inside. Mr. Thomas, Ferris explains, has worked as a gravedigger, and the imagery is as much a part of his music as his art. The two "have never been linked in this way," he says.
Even so, the sense of nostalgic preservation - particularly underneath the almost ghostly ceiling panels commemorating blues performers - sometimes overwhelms. It's curious that Tigrett is so intent on a blues resurgence when the contemporary end of the African-American musical tradition, hip-hop and rap music, has been so vibrant of late. Tigrett is uncomplicated about his motives: "I love the music."
Downstairs, in the cozy restaurant, a woman who says she is a friend of Tigrett's will hear none of this. The blues promoter is a devotee of the Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba, whose large, photographic portrait hangs over the stage, and the woman insists that House of Blues will be huge, bigger than Hard Rock. "Sai Baba said so," she says.
So as Jake and Elwood would have it: a mission from God.