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Big Ticket Blues

Isaac Tigrett/Hubris in the House

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Big Ticket Blues

Much has been made of the dizzying success and unconventional business practices of House of Blues honcho Isaac Tigrett, whose newest club opens next Sunday at Marina City. Lost in all the hoopla, however, is the fact that the music the club purports to promote is upstaged by the multimedia carnival that surrounds it. House of Blues is a Disney-style theme park that takes the dubious art of commodifying culture to new heights.

Tigrett, 48, made his vast fortune by starting the Hard Rock Cafe, whose first outlet opened in London back in 1971. The rock 'n' roll theme restaurant became a model for gimmicky eateries, as one glance around River North reveals. Unfortunately, in their search for uniqueness, these prefab palaces have inadvertently become identical to one another. That's because you can't prefabricate culture, but don't try to tell it to Tigrett. He has long suggested that the guitars and other objects stockpiled in the Hard Rocks are synonymous with rock itself. (Conversely, he once reduced his late wife Maureen Starkey, Ringo Starr's first wife, to an object, calling her "my greatest piece of rock 'n' roll memorabilia.") Tigrett sold off his Hard Rock shares in 1988, but his new venture operates under the same assumption that cultural authenticity is only a blank check away.

One thing Tigrett can't buy is his Indian guru, Sathya Sai Baba (Tigrett's been a follower of Hinduism for two decades), but his deference to the holy man has a price. The opening date for Chicago's House of Blues was selected because it was Sai Baba's birthday, not because it was most convenient for the construction company. "We'll be functioning," says Tigrett. "There'll just be a lot of unfinished bits and pieces." Sai Baba serves as Tigrett's business adviser as well as his spiritual counselor, and during the furor that's erupted over the appropriation of the Catholic sacred heart symbol for the club's logo, Tigrett has said Sai Baba approved his attempt to "bring spirituality to the forefront of culture."

Tigrett speaks largely in sound bites, and one often quoted says that "House of Blues isn't celebrating culture, it's creating culture." But culture can't be farmed by a businessman; he can merely gather up its detritus. Tigrett dressed up his LA club in corrugated metal taken from an old gin mill near the Mississippi crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have made his pact with the devil; he also has piles of Delta dirt boxed and kept under all the clubs' stages to impart to them the proper blues spirit. "I think it reeks of authenticity," he says. The Chicago club, like the other locales, is modeled on an old southern juke joint, but this juke joint cost $20 million to build and has several restaurants, a clothing store, a book and record shop, and, next year, "the world's first blues-themed hotel." Better call now to reserve the Howlin' Wolf suite.

In the future, just in case these amenities can't provide enough to do aside from listening to the band, Tigrett says, patrons will be able to partake in his latest scheme: cyber-cruising. "You'll look over and see that that one's taken, and that one's ugly, I don't want to talk to her," but a bank of monitors showing the scenes in LA, New Orleans, and Cambridge will allow for other options. "With a little joystick you can cruise the bar," he continues. "I'm serious--you push a button right next to the joystick and that alerts the bartender in, say, LA, and he picks up a set of headphones and you speak on your set and say, I want to talk to the blond. I can't wait."

Female patrons may be treated like meat, but Tigrett brags that musicians aren't. "I don't think you'll find any musicians complaining about the way we treat them," he says. "We treat them like gods. They are our gods." But this is an expensive religion: of the first 33 concerts announced by the club only 3 of them carry a ticket price less than $20. Tickets to Aretha Franklin's April performances cost $65; Tigrett blames Jam Productions for driving up the bidding, but Jam senior talent buyer Nick Miller insists that the company didn't even put in an offer for the shows. The top two tiers of the club's balcony are reserved for corporations and individuals who can cough up the $150,000 to $200,000 a year for a box--the average blues fan, much like the average Bulls fan, gets shafted.

Tigrett says most of the money from box rentals supports the House of Blues Foundation, which metes out college scholarships and conducts African-American history and music programs for students from underfunded school districts. Despite the financial reality that will prevent many urban blacks from coming to the House of Blues, Tigrett makes a lot of noise about getting blacks "reinterested" in the blues. "This music is their heritage and they're the ones who should be preserving and protecting it," he says.

For those who can afford it, the club, which is booked by former Avalon and China Club talent buyer Michael Yerke, does promise some good music. It's bringing legends like Franklin, Johnny Cash ($32.50), George Clinton ($30), and the Neville Brothers ($27.50) to a 1,200-person venue with impeccable sight lines and a top-notch sound system. The club is also presenting some acts rarely heard in town: Les Paul, although burdened by the accompaniment of Neil Schon and Slash, is coming for the first time in years. And the local debut of Outkast, along with another performance by the Roots, suggests that urban acts may be heard with more frequency than they are now.

One possible positive effect of the entry of House of Blues into the Chicago market is that similar-size venues like Metro and Jam-booked spots like Park West and the Vic will have to be more creative and varied in their booking. Hopefully they won't be forced to turn themselves into circuses as well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Isaac Tigrett photo by Marc PoKempner.

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