Music fans who frequented the old Avalon (Citi, Metro, Boston Tea Party etc.) on Lansdowne Street will barely recognize the venue in its reincarnation as the House of Blues. Opening night was Thursday, but there’s still a lustrous slate of performers helping christen it this weekend, including the Gipsy Kings tonight, the Blues Brothers, with Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi, on Saturday, and blues immortals B.B. King and Buddy Guy on Sunday.
Music fans who frequented the old Avalon (Citi, Metro, Boston Tea Party etc.) on Lansdowne Street will barely recognize the venue in its reincarnation as the House of Blues.
The faux-glitz of the disco parlor that moonlighted as a rock venue has been replaced by more wide-open spaces, more amenities, better sightlines and state-of-the-art sound and stage.
Opening night was Thursday, but there’s still a lustrous slate of performers helping christen it this weekend, including the Gipsy Kings tonight, the Blues Brothers, with Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi, on Saturday, and blues immortals B.B. King and Buddy Guy on Sunday.
The star-studded weekend caps a renovation project that took more than a year to complete and included the absorption of Axis, the tiny neighboring rock club. That space has been utilized to expand the stage and backstage areas, including the dressing rooms.
“The old Avalon stage was 32 feet long, and this new one is 52 feet, by 28 feet deep,” said Tim McKenna, production manager at the club. “We’re up around an arena-size stage now, and it allows us to do a lot more.”
While the space for the audience has not been expanded, the amenities have. Those include fewer and better-lit steps and six bars around the lower level, more numerous and better situated than when the building was Avalon.
And what was once Mama Kin’s, is now the House of Blues restaurant, which seats about 150, and includes a shiny mahogany bar House of Blues founder Isaac Tigrett rescued from a Chicago blues lounge. The menu includes much of the usual House of Blues fare, along with specials tailored to local tastes.
Just like the old House of Blues in Harvard Square, the new one will serve as a showcase for a massive collection of American folk art. They were still hanging some of the stuff when we visited last week, and a collection of gaudy dancing shoes stuck into the ceiling over the main entrance is a guaranteed eye-catcher. Some of the portraits of blues and rock legends are truly spectacular.
“Isaac Tigrett believes in the educational component, and letting people know that blues is the root of almost every genre we enjoy today,” said Dave Fortin, vice president of marketing for the House of Blues. “There’s a direct line from field chants to hip-hop, for instance. I know in my own experience at the old Cambridge House, seeing kids learning about this musical heritage was something we all loved to have happening. In fact, the Cambridge venue was extra special to all of us, because it was the first one, and it was kept closer to roots-based music than any of the others.”
Teo Leyasmeyer, the late general manager for most of the Cambridge club’s run, was one major reason that House hewed firmly to a blues-centric musical menu. Most of the other dozen locations across the country are bigger, and, partially as a result of their size, had to branch out into rock, pop, R&B and hip-hop. The new Boston space will do the same, attracting pretty much the same types of bands that played Avalon, but with better sightlines. .
The first balcony especially looks to be a vast improvement, with superb viewing spots around the three sides of the hall. The second balcony features club seating at tables, and behind that, 300 theater-style seats, which are about as far away as the top-level seats at The Orpheum. Those seats are reserved and will be sold separate from the usual general admission tickets.
Both balconies have bars, although their proximity to the banks of speakers hanging from each side of the stage may put a strain on the eardrums.
Most fans probably won’t get into the plush Foundation Room area, a facet of all 13 Houses nationally. These are private rooms, analogous to a private box. Those memberships run from $1,250-$2,250 annually, and enable patrons to use a separate entrance direct to the Foundation Room lounge and its three connected dining areas.
This section of the club, however, is not conducive for seeing and hearing the performers. There are no direct sightlines and in some spots the only way to see what’s taking place onstage is via the closed-circuit feed showing on a flat-screen TV.
The opulent and undeniably lovely Foundation Room has walls upholstered in Indian wedding dresses, a product of Tigrett’s time in India where he became a Buddhist. Swatches, each one approximately 6 inches by 10 inches, have been restored and redyed and stitched together like quilts.
Suburban fans will not be thrilled to discover that the new House of Blues and the renovations on Lansdowne Street have not included any parking improvements. There are the garages adjacent to the site, unaffiliated with the operation, and those connected to Fenway Park. Most nights patrons will be paying Boston parking fees, because on-street/meter spaces are rare in the area. During Red Sox games, it will likely be as chaotic as ever. It seems like an oversight that no attempt was made to include or acquire at least some parking dedicated to club patrons.
“Parking in Boston in general is a challenge,” Fortin said. “Our fans will just have to jump into that ocean with everyone else, and we’re hoping they car-pool, or use the T as much as possible.”
Fortin did note that, thus far, relations with the Red Sox and Fenway Park have been cordial, and there are hopes of collaborating on events. “The Red Sox have been amazing, advising us on some ideas, and very open about sharing their knowledge of the area,” he said. “I can’t think of better neighbors, really.”
The Patriot Ledger