Funeral Music Plays For Bastion of the Blues

Two weeks ago, music-obsessed students lost a cultural landmark. But it wasn’t one of the historic sites on campus—it was the tiny House of Blues, formerly located just around the corner from Staples.

“We were supposed to play there on the 17th. It was going to be our big back-to-school show,” said Alan J. Wilkis ’04, who plays guitar with the up-and-coming hip-hop band Witness Protection Program. “Playing there was like a dream.”

For nearly 11 years, the House of Blues had been a Cambridge institution, the first in a nationwide chain with over 17 locations nationwide. But on Sept. 14, the venue abruptly closed its doors, in search of a bigger location in Boston.

Originally conceived as a place that would celebrate “the African American cultural contributions of blues music and folk art,” the range of musicians and art presented at the club was far too eclectic to be pigeonholed. The House played host to a wide range of international musicians from Africa and the Caribbean, including luminaries such as Thomas Mapfumo of Zimbabwe and the Boukman Eksperyans. The House of Blues also featured local heroes such as Pete Francis, formerly of the band Dispatch.

In the main hall, an array of blues musicians smiled down from bas-relief portraits on the walls and ceiling, which resembled a low-roofed country chapel. The stage was a slightly raised area at one end, which gave immediate contact between artist and audience.

“It was small enough that you could go up and shake the hand of the artist at the end,” said Dominic C. Deleon ’04. “It made a link between these famous artists and the common people.” Deleon did more than just shake hands: at a Cody ChestnuTT gig, he got up onstage and rapped and sang with ChestnuTT.

The small capacity of the venue—only 200 compared to more than 1200 at other House of Blues locations—was the motivation behind closing it. Yet it was also one of the main attractions.

“It was almost like playing a frat, only there was less chance that someone was going to come onstage and spill beer on an amp,” said Jesse R. Andrews ’04, bassist in the Harvard-based funk band FinkFankFunk. FinkFankFunk performed at the House of Blues twice in 2002, headlining their second show there. “The people who ran the place were really friendly, which is a rarity for people who do that sort of thing for a living,” said Andrews.

The music hall also housed a Harvard “Battle of the Bands,” featuring bands from several different Harvard graduate schools in April 2002.

Jack Gannon, publicist for the House of Blues, said that there was a special relationship between the House of Blues and Harvard, which helped finance the venue when it opened.

“There was definitely a community relationship,” he said. “We hope that with the new venue, that relationship will be sustained and will grow.”

“We hope to still have Harvard bands play [at the Boston venue], but also host a wider variety of bands, including some national artists,” he added.

The House of Blues was all the more exceptional within the context of Harvard Square, which—according to many—has become less attuned to students in recent years. As the Square is increasingly occupied by cellphone stores, jewelers and upmarket bars, the House of Blues was seen by some as a welcome dose of reality and a place to mix with other artists and music-lovers.

“The House of Blues made Harvard Square feel like less of its own planet,” said Elliot G. Aguilar ’04. “It made you forget you were in Harvard Square.”

“It was like stepping into someone’s attic with lots of old ’45’s and photos and listening to their personal collection,” said Deleon.

The House of Blues was the last music venue in Harvard Square to host musicians of national and international standing. Central Square venues such as the Middle East and the larger clubs on Lansdowne Street in Boston seldom feature musicians from as far afield, or from as wide a range of musical styles as the House of Blues displayed in a single month.

Although Gannon says its patrons fully understand the business decision to close the venue in order to allow more growth, the House of Blues is sure to be missed by fans of good music throughout Harvard and Cambridge.

—Staff writer Andrew Iliff can be reached at