When the House of Blues Sunset Strip opened in 1994, it seemed like a promising new addition to an off-kilter scene that was still fractured between grunge groaners and big hair-metal howlers. The venue did, on occasion, memorably serve its cultural function: the stunning 2003 performance by Strip icon Arthur Lee & Love, with orchestral ensemble, of Forever Changes; The Cramps' 25th-anniversary gig (which Poison Ivy called “one of the best shows we ever played”).
But with the 1,500-capacity club now closed for good, and its imminent demolition at hand (to make way for “a record number of developments along a 1.6-mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard,” according to Bloomberg), it’s time to call a spade a spade. The House of Blues sucked. It was a squandered opportunity, doomed from the outset by its bloated sense of self-importance and overstuffed Hollywood entitlement.
The toxic fruit of an alliance between Hard Rock Café co-founder Isaac Tigrett and the insufferably unfunny Dan Aykroyd, the House of Blues' “brand” concept was fueled by the former’s dubious spiritualism (he loyally followed accused pedophile guru Sathya Sai Baba) and the latter’s demeaning, burlesque attitude toward blues (displayed, at ghastly length, in modern minstrel show The Blues Brothers). The club's faux-decrepit exterior façade, phony folksy “outsider art” décor and ludicrous sloganeering (“Help Ever Hurt Never,” “Where Music Feeds the Soul”) all collided to create a thunderingly artificial atmosphere.
Hope for the club to uphold its titular bargain soon proved futile. A small army of critical, Los Angeles–based R&B talent was still actively working in 1994 — Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Charles Brown, Don & Dewey, Richard Berry, Ruth Brown, Big Jay McNeely, Joe Houston, Hank Ballard — but few ever appeared there.
The original booker, Kevin Morrow, was a legitimate blues head — and while he did, initially, bring in some great black talent (from Ike Turner to Burning Spear), within 24 months HOB sent him on the road to oversee the opening additional venues in its fast-blossoming empire. After Morrow moved on, blues acts became almost nonexistent.
It’s true that R&B empress Etta James was a regular attraction, but even then, there were infamous missteps. One night James' longtime pal, the 7-foot-1-inch-tall NBA basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain turned up — but even after they found his name on her guest list, he was refused entry when he was unable to present picture ID.
Over the years, HOB became a juggernaut of ridiculousness, ordering employees to pay fake compliments to entering customers (“Oh, you look nice tonight!”), and a portent of doom for Hollywood nightclub practices (say hello to $20 valet parking!). The quality of bookings steadily worsened. Even when it had a good headliner, the fun ended as soon as the music stopped and, as if waking from a dream, there you were, with only that nightmare of a parking lot to look forward to.
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After Live Nation swallowed it up in 2006, the degradation only continued. For the last few years, it had basically operated as a pay-to-play club, requiring local performers to fork over $200 or more for presale tickets. Ultimately, HOB was run into the ground long before it gave way to luxury condos.
Groovy Rednecks singer Tex Troester summed it all up: “Once, when we played the Elvis birthday show there, Dan Aykroyd tried to have security kick me out because I said hello to him.”