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TAKING THE BLUES TO THE BANK Music: Chicago's new $20 million honky tonk, the House of Blues, puts the down-and-out, hardscrabble music in a whole new arena.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- Oh, mama, look what they've done to the blues.

You remember the blues, don't you? Sweet, sad music about lost love and flawed souls and sittin' on the dock of the bay, preferably played in smoky, dingy, dangerous joints where the only phone number you need is scrawled on the bathroom wall.

Those days are gone. They end at 8: 30 p.m. Saturday in an explosion of fireworks from a barge on the Chicago River. They end when 1,500 media people and assorted guests witness the opening of a $20-plus million, 55,000-square-foot dance hall that looks like a combination of Tara, a Prague opera house and the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. They end with an opening-night extravaganza featuring movie stars and music legends in a city famous for the blues. They end with this announcement by Blues Brother Jim Belushi:

"The House of Blues is now open for business!"

Business indeed, mama. This is the fourth and largest House of Blues (the others are in Cambridge, Mass., New Orleans and Los Angeles), an opulent, ornate and overdone entertainment complex that is to a juke joint what a Lexus is to a jalopy.

"This is the most beautiful music venue you'll ever see," Belushi says.

"And the food ain't bad, either," chimes in Dan Aykroyd, aka Elwood Blues, one of the House of Blues investors, whose belt could testify that he knew what he was talking about.

They all were there: Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and John Landis, who directed the movie "The Blues Brothers" and will begin work on the sequel, "Blues Brothers 2000." Landis introduces a host of stars who have flown to Chicago to surprise Aykroyd: "Saturday Night Live" alumni Chevy Chase, Lorraine Newman and Paul Shaffer; actors John Cusack and Jon Cryer; and actress Linda Hamilton.

There are musicians, too: Joe Walsh, Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, Chicago bluesman Syl Johnson and the original Blues Brothers Band.

The spirit of the one person who isn't there -- John Belushi, aka Jake Blues, who died of a drug overdose in 1982 -- hovers everywhere.

"His blood and his soul and his tears are in every inch here," Belushi's widow, Judy, says.

And, after one song, Jim Belushi, whose on-stage resemblance to his brother is eerie, says: "That one's for you, Jake. We miss you on this stage."

Earlier, Belushi is asked if his brother could have imagined this.

"I don't think he thought that far ahead," he says. "The thing about John was, he was living the moment." What would he think about this particular moment? "He'd be jealous and pissed off that he's not here."

But the true star of this night is the House of Blues itself. Maybe it's the sunken dance floor and cavern-like feel of the main showroom. Maybe it's the African-American folk art that lines the walls. Maybe it's the funky paint on everything -- the ceiling, the stair handrails, the doors. Maybe it's the velvet chairs.

No, look higher for the soul of the House of Blues, way up there, to what they call the opera skyboxes, which corporations can rent to entertain clients. Each skybox, like each room here, is computer friendly. A House of Blues worker sits near the dance floor Saturday night hunched over a laptop, describing the events on the Internet.

You can just imagine what she's writing: Paul Shaffer just rocked the joint with "Green Onions." Oh, goodness, that Joe Walsh can make a guitar cry. John Goodman was supposed to be here, but he isn't. Questions, comments? You can reach us at http: //www.hob.com .

B.B. King, meet B.B.B. -- Baby Boomer Blues -- a safe, clean venue where rich, comfortable white folks can celebrate the music of poor, oppressed black folks.

Saving America

That's not exactly how they put it, of course. Isaac Tigrett, the Tennessee visionary whose previous contribution to American culture was the creation of the Hard Rock Cafe (which he sold for $108 million in 1988), believes the blues can save and unite America.

It's right there, in big letters above the main stage and its giant purple-and-crimson quilted curtain, just above the portrait of Sai Baba, the Indian guru who is Tigrett's spiritual leader, right next to the various other religious symbols, from the Star of David and the Madonna to Buddha and the Star and Crescent: "Unity in Diversity," it says. "All are one."

But all had better bring cash. Tickets to House of Blues concerts run about $20, and you can have crawfish linguine in the House of Blues restaurant, and eventually you can stay at the House of Blues hotel, and you can contribute to the House of Blues Foundation, and buy records on the House of Blues label, and listen to the House of Blues radio show, and stop by the House of Blues gift shop to buy everything from leather jackets to license plates to bottled water with the House of Blues logo, and then you can light your last remaining dollar on fire with a premium cigar available right here at the House of Capitalism, er, Blues.

Tigrett, 48, who wears black, travels in a restored 1927 railroad car and is married to Ringo Starr's first wife, clearly has plans to take over the world, one franchise at a time (get ready Myrtle Beach, London and Paris -- you're next). But he won't apologize for what some have called the Walmartization of the blues.

"It's absolutely a very extraordinary experience to open a House of Blues in the home of the blues," he says. "It's a '90s version of a juke joint. It's not going to be old guys like me who take the blues through the millennium. It's going to be the young guys."

A new generation

Say what you will about Tigrett, he certainly has exposed a new generation to the music. House of Blues officials contend that there was a 938 percent increase in attendance at blues concerts between 1991 and 1993 and a 70 percent increase in sales of blues memorabilia.

But the people connected with the House of Blues are sensitive to complaints that they are driving the old blues haunts out of business. Aykroyd practically begs people to check out Buddy Guy's Legends, the Kingston Mine, the Checkerboard and other old-time Chicago joints.

Belushi compares the House of Blues opening to a movie premiere -- when there's a hot film, attendance increases for all films. "Success breeds success, and this is going to be successful."

That appears undebatable. And don't expect Syl Johnson or the other Chicago blues artists to complain about authenticity and purity; that would be like a cattle breeder criticizing McDonald's hamburgers. In the world of the blues, everybody's price is about to go up. Even B.B. King does Wendy's commercials, after all.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is the new Chicago Opera House for America's original opera, which is the blues," Tigrett says.

There is a moment late in Saturday's concert that captures this new blues spirit. Right in the middle of singing, Belushi spots a fan in the front row taping him with a video recorder. Belushi yanks the recorder away and hands it to Aykroyd, who rushes off the stage. When he returns, Aykroyd hands the offending recorder back to the fan, minus the tape, which he proceeds to rip apart.

Don't mess with the House of Blues. If there's any justice in the world, that fan will ease his suffering the old-fashioned way:

My baby, she done left me

But that ain't quite so bad

As the night they ripped my tape in two

And left my heart so sad.

I've got the House of Blues blues, mama

The House of Blues blues.

And a blank tape runnin' in my head.

* All rights reserved. Patent pending. Eat your heart out, Elwood.

Pub Date: 11/25/96

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