“In Blues We Trust”
Here’s a topic, discuss: how the Chicago location of the House of Blues is neither a house nor a blues venue. Discuss. Regardless, the House of Blues stands out as a “concert hall and entertainment emporium,” complete with restaurant, bar, and even a hotel. With a Cajun “Mississippi Delta” theme and an orgy of color, the House of Blues makes the Green Door Tavern, Hangge Uppe and Burwood Tap look minimalist. While the “HOB” is a bonafide tourist trap, it also entertains all within the Chicagoland area.
A Locale as Unique as the Decor
Located in Marina Towers and spanning an entire block, the HOB is accessible from either Dearborn or State. The concert hall, restaurant and bar are all housed in the shed-like building with doughy, swooped roof. When you walk in through the bank of front doors, prepare to be overwhelmed. Everything is painted in bright colors and decorations adorn almost ever square inch of floor, walls, ceiling, and even the columns and railings. Among the decor are paintings that look like they were painted by the staff, shoes arranged in druid-like circles, corrugated tin, and Santeria-like candle arrangements. To your right are the ticket counters and staircase leading to the concert hall. To your left is the HOB store. In front of the doors is the restaurant and bar area. My recommendation: if you’re there to see a show, make sure you check out the restaurant or at the very least, the bar. If you don’t have tickets to a show, the House of Blues definitely stands on its own as a restaurant and bar and deserves a visit.
The Music Hallr
If you’re there to see a show, head up the stairs located to the right of the restaurant and bar area. But, as the Boy Scouts urge, be prepared! Because the concert area has three bars, the ushers card everyone. Since the HOB books popular national acts, indie bands, and the occasional blues singer, the place can draw over a thousand people. Again, everyone will be carded and those over 21 will have wristbands affixed, so you could wind up in a line for hours and possibly miss the opening band(s) or even part of the main show. Just do the math: the hall holds up to 1,000 people. Let’s say 750 show up, and they take an average of 15 seconds to card and band each patron. Assuming that’s in the ballpark, it will take over three hours for everyone to get in. My advice: get there early! You’ll be in the front of the line, and you will have enough time to check out the restaurant and bar. Just remember: once you’re in the concert hall, they won’t let you in again if you leave.
The concert area, humbly named the “Music Hall,” was modeled after the “Estavovski” Opera House in Prague and is quite impressive. Assuming the place isn’t completely packed, it is quite easy to elbow your way to the front. As the giant quilt-like curtain goes up, you can be within a few feet of the performers. I once saw a band there called Cowboy Mouth, where the drummer was the lead singer and had his drum kit placed at the edge of the stage. He was so close to the audience, sweat literally flew off his body onto groupies. At another show, I was close enough to see the percussionist of Ekoostik Hookah play an incredible variety of instruments that included just about everything but a car muffler. It was also at this show that my date and I had a free picture of us taken, which I later retrieved off of the House of Blues / JoePix website.
Advice Concerning Drinks
Additional standing room is located in front of each bar, on either side of the stage and at the back. Strangely, one night while I was there, none of the taps were working, which prevented me from spending $5 for each Budweiser. As if the place weren’t making enough money, the drink prices are exorbitant. My advice: buy a pint of booze and stick it in your pants before going in. The soft drinks aren’t cheap either, but the combined cost will be far cheaper than a night of Captain & Cokes. To get to the bathrooms, walk down the hallway to the right of the back bar. The men’s room is to your left, and the women’s is on the right. Both are on the same level – remember this, because if you go down the back staircase, they won’t let you back in. The bathrooms are huge but as with all other bathrooms in the place, attendants are ready to offer you a paper towel in return for a tip.
Music and Accolades
The music at the HOB covers all genres, including rock, punk, rockabilly, hip-hop, ska, jazz, funk, rap, world music, and, oh yeah, blues. Gospel can even be heard during “Gospel Brunch” on Sundays for $30 a pop – “Praise the Lord, and pass the biscuits!” Bands play seven nights a week and are typically national acts past their prime, but a lot of up-and- coming local acts also make appearances. Ticket prices usually range between $10 and $20, so it’s not that expensive. In addition, the sound system is quite good and your ears won’t be ringing afterwards.
If you are a House of Blues member, you can watch the show from one of luxury boxes in the balcony. You will also have access to the members-only, upstairs bar and dining area known as the “Foundation Room.” The Foundation Room has a nice bar and intimate seating with fellow members in rather ornate cubbyholes filled with pillows.
The Back Porch
The restaurant, known as the “Back Porch” and once only open to members, is a tiered expanse of 1800’s-style, French-cut wood paneling and tables. The fare consists of Cajun classics and is pretty good, but doesn’t hold a candle to any of the three Heaven on Seven Chicago locations. However, the chicken fingers are the best in the city, served with remoulade and honey mustard sauces. Scrum-diddly-umptious. The service, on the other hand is often lacking, sometimes severely. The Back Porch is surrounded with television monitors that list upcoming shows and information on music currently playing on the sound system. The ceiling of the restaurant and bar area is adorned with musicians in bass relief. Actual musicians play at the oriental-carpeted stage at the front of the restaurant, in addition to upstairs.
The bar area to the right of the restaurant is adorned with bottle caps, license plates at your feet, padlocks hanging behind the bar, and painted skulls proliferate. There was even a cigarette girl that also sold cigars. While many bars have responded to the anti-cigar backlash by banning cigar smoking, the HOB still allows them. I know this because a giant cloud of cigar smoke settled over the bar area, thanks to a balding, fat, inconsiderate cigar smoker.
The Transatlantic Christmas Party Adventure
On a personal note, the House of Blues was the final destination of my 1997 Transatlantic Christmas Party Adventure. The adventure started when I was on a consulting engagement at our sister company in London. Originally, I decided to return to the States on a Thursday so that I could make my company’s Christmas Party the next day. Unfortunately, this would cause me to miss the Christmas Party in London, scheduled for that same Thursday. At the urging of one of the consulting firm’s partners (originally from Texas), I rescheduled my trip so that I could attend the London Christmas party on Thursday, fly home that Friday, and make my company’s Christmas party later that night. How would that work? It takes approximately 7.5 hours to fly from London to Chicago, and London is six hours ahead of Chicago. So, to fly back from London, you will be in Chicago only 1.5 hours later than when you left the ground at Heathrow.
The Christmas party in London was a blast. The secret is that no spouses or significant others were invited. At that party, a vast quantity of alcohol was consumed resulting in the Managing Director being placed in hand-cuffs by an openly gay consultant, a girl literally knocked the needle of the record when she spun around and took out the entire DJ sound system, and I rode home in a limousine that I flagged down on the street. I made my flight the next morning with not more than five minutes to spare. I got home about eight hours later, took a three hour nap, and was the first person to my company’s Christmas Party located in the Mid-America room on the 88th floor of the Standard Oil – Amoco – BP – Aon Building. That party was lame by comparison. The highlight of the night was ending up in the House of Blues member’s bar and being the last man standing. Since I left the London party after midnight, I was able to hit both, transatlantic Christmas parties on the same day, thus solidifying my status as a legend in my own mind and a monument unto myself.
Elsewhere Within the HOB Complex
Just opposite the House of Blues entertainment emporium is the Hotel Sax, originally the House of Blues Hotel. The hotel itself is as ornate as the “Foundation Room” and “Music Hall,” and offers over 350 rooms, ranging in price from $150 to $1,500 a night. Upon entering the hotel, “guests will be welcomed into the hotel lobby by large iron cathedral gates opening to ancient blue glass panels from a meditation temple in India, two hand-carved wooden corbels gracing the bar and three colossal male figures circling a large structural column in the center of the lobby.” Whoa, Nelly. Each guest receives a complimentary CD, has access to the Crunch Fitness Center, and can even bowl in the 36 lane AMF bowling alley. In addition, located on the first floor of the hotel, is the Kaz-Bar (a Moroccan-themed hotel bar), Bin 36 (wine bar and cafe), and Smith & Wollensky’s steakhouse, which replaced the Marina 300 lounge, offers a superb view of the Chicago River and where for $40 I had one of the best steaks of my life.
House of Blues Brothers
The House of Blues complex opened on October 1, 1996 to much hoopla. The Chicago HOB is owned by Dan Ackroyd of Blues Brothers and Saturday Night Live fame, and Jim Belushi of About Last Night and Canine (pshaw) fame. The House of Blues mission statement: “To create a profitable, principled, global entertainment company; to celebrate the diversity and brotherhood of world culture; to promote racial and spiritual harmony through love, peace, truth, righteousness and non-violence.” The goal of HOB: “To educate the public about the blues, its roots and its excellence.”
The HOB – Corn Cob Connection
Both the House of Blues concert hall and hotel are part of Marina City, known to locals as Marina Towers and the “Corn Cob” towers. The towers feature a marina at its base, 20 open air levels for parking, and 40 levels of trapezoid-shaped condominiums. Marina City was designed in 1959 by Bertrand Goldberg Associates, the same architectural firm whose organic design can be found in River City along the South Branch of the Chicago River. Marina Towers was even featured in Steve McQueen’s last movie, The Hunter. In pursuit of a criminal, McQueen follows the man up the spiral parking lot and, on the 15th floor, the criminal loses control of his car and drives off the building into the Chicago River.
“In the beginning, it was a movie theater, and in 1972, theater manager Gloria Kirkpatrick was brutally murdered in the theater’s office. She was stabbed nine times in the chest, once in the groin, and three times in the right arm with what police determined was a butcher knife. The case was never solved. The movie theater closed in 1977, but WFLD used it as a television studio until 1986. For the next decade, the deteriorating, vacant building changed hands regularly until developer John Marks and entrepreneur Isaac Tigrett introduced plans to open the House Of Blues.”– excerpt from Kyle Ryan’s article, “Remembering the ‘Bucket ‘o Blood” on Decider Chicago
(September 10, 2008)
Bertrand Would be Proud
While service can be poor, the drinks are expensive, and the concert venue suffers from excessively long waits to get in, the House of Blues is a can’t miss. Get there early, smuggle in your own liquor, have a drink at the Back Porch bar, and catch a band at one of the best concert halls in the city. And, if you’ve got money to burn, come for the food and drink, and stay for the music. For more information and upcoming shows, check out the House of Blues website. Mmmm, hmmm.