I put on the obligatory hard hat and walk through the doors of what used to be Avalon on Lansdowne Street, across from Fenway Park. To the layman — me — it's all dust, noise, metal, and mess. The sounds of drills and hammers, clutter everywhere, workmen bustling every which way, a skeleton of a large stage jutting out onto a cluttered dance-floor-to-come. The facility — soon to be America's 13th House of Blues — is positioned to again make Kenmore Square a magnet of Boston's concert scene. As I take the tour, it is about a month away from its opening. That will happen February 19 with a show featuring the reunited-for-a-night J. Geils Band.
NEW BLUES: The 53,000-square-foot House of Blues complex — taking over the space on Lansdowne Street formerly occupied by Avalon, Axis, the Embassy, and the Modern — will include a rock club and two restaurants.
Joseph Perra, the man in charge of interior construction, has been on site three months. I ask his take, and he looks about. "We're fine," he says. "I've seen worse." No one, in fact, is worried about on-time completion. Asked about the project, Julie Jordan, the incoming general manager, says they're 75 percent done, with all the plumbing and electrical wiring in place.
This strip along Lansdowne Street — dormant since Patrick Lyons and his Lyons Group shuttered Avalon, Axis, the Embassy, and the Modern in September 2007 — is ready to again become a hub of nightlife activity. The House of Blues will be a 2400-plus-capacity rock-concert club, the bulk of it open space on the floor and mezzanine, with stadium-style seats at the rear of the room on the mezzanine and third levels. The layout is not unlike a more spacious Avalon. The whole complex is 53,000 square feet, up from the former complex's 41,000.
At the time Lyons shut down his clubs, he issued a proud, Terminator-esque call: we'll be back. His intention was to tear down, rebuild, and revamp the facility as a multi-use site for music and dining. Then, this past year, he got an offer from the House of Blues: we would like to lease your property and build our own music-and-restaurant complex. Lyons thought, "Why not?" He served as a consultant. Says Lyons's friend and HoB co-founder Dan Aykroyd, "He wasn't going to give away years of legacy" without having an impact on what was to follow. (Says Aykroyd of his own relationship with the chain: "I sold my shares at acquisition, but I have a rights and royalties structure and I'm a founding consultant.")
"It's true," says Lyons. "Our role was, we designed the bones, the structure of it, and they are doing the interior, the House of Blues magic." Lyons says he can't help but think, "Having had a run there so long, you have some separation anxiety: can these people do it with the care and love we tried to [give] for so many years?" He's confident they can, and believes the House of Blues will anchor what will be a prime destination location. Lyons says that, in the past three years, $44 million has been poured into the street's entertainment facilities (excluding Fenway Park). This spring, he's turning Jake Ivory's into The Lansdowne, an Irish pub. The Cask 'n Flagon has been upgraded. Lyons says he's happy now to play the role of "supporting actor. I'll peddle as fast as I can to help the House of Blues. It's enlightened self-interest — we have a lot of investment on the street that's not them."
Clubland goes zen
The House of Blues VIP opening is February 21. Aykroyd and fellow Blues Brother Jim Belushi and their band headline (as they traditionally do for all House of Blues openings), Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave). That night will begin with a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, by a band assembled by billionaire Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist who founded the Hendrix museum in Seattle. Then comes a set by Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters and, finally, the Blues Brothers.
There will be two eateries: the open-to-the-general-public, 11 am–midnight House of Blues Restaurant downstairs and the exclusive Foundation Room lounge and three dining areas upstairs. There, members — they hope to eventually get 1200 — will pay between $1250 and $2250 a year to join.(A three-person corporate membership goes for $8500.) These are the equivalent to stadium sky boxes, and it's an open question whether they will be supported in this financial storm.
The Boston facility was, of course, planned before the economy went bust, and it will open in the midst of a massive recession. Worries? "Music seems to be recession-proof," says director of marketing Dave Fortin. "People comfort themselves with it in bad times and reward themselves with it in good times."