Dan Aykroyd was only 18 when the blues great Muddy Waters invited him onstage to jam a while on drums. Life couldn’t get any sweeter for the young Canadian blues fanatic—or so he thought at the time. Now, 23 years later, Aykroyd is emerging as a patron saint of the blues, presiding over his own chain of latter-day juke joints.
Aykroyd’s clubs are called the House of Blues, and the third and latest opened recently on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. It’s a three-story, 19,000-square-foot shrine to the soul of Mississippi Delta music, art and food, a high-tech wonder wrapped in low-tech décor.
Penetrate the rusted corrugated tin and raw plywood exterior, and you’ll find a first-floor music hall with a seven-nights-a-week schedule of top-tier blues performers. Upstairs, the dining room is perfumed with the smokehouse scent of good barbecue. The 80-foot-long bar splits open hydraulically, allowing diners to see the dance floor and stage below. And even when the bar has swung shut, music from the stage show can be heard anywhere in the club, while scattered monitors allow diners to soak in the sight as well as the sound.
Every inch of wall space is covered with art from the Mississippi Delta, collected by one of Aykroyd’s partners, entrepreneur Isaac Tigrett, the founder of the Hard Rock Café chain. Says Aykroyd, “It has the feel of a backcountry, blue-collar roadhouse, with checked tablecloths and unfinished walls.” The kitchen serves up barbecued chicken and ribs, with three sauces on the side, and Louisiana favorites like crawfish etouffée or red beans and dirty rice (and appeases lean-cuisine lovers with seafood, pasta and sprout-filled salads).
Aykroyd signed on as a partner in the venture “to have a place to hang out in the towns I like,” but mostly because he loves his blues. His Saturday Night Live Blues Brothers act with John Belushi (not to mention their movie and five albums) actually grew out of Aykroyd’s lifelong passion. On the L.A. club’s opening night, Aykroyd and his Blues Brothers band—joined by John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Bruce Springsteen—brought down the house.
Clubs are already up and running in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New Orleans, with the next two planned for New York and Chicago. Though they’re envisioned as tourist must-sees, the Houses are intended to generate more than lucre. The House of Blues Foundation, begun by Tigrett and funded solely by restaurant profits, sponsors lectures, blues-guitar workshops, television programs and is planning an album series. “The blues are the taproot of rock and roll,” says Aykroyd, who believes the foundation’s efforts will teach America about its rich, often unexamined, musical past.
An affectionate, funky tribute to good music and good times, the House of Blues seems filled with the rambunctious spirit of the late John Belushi. As Aykroyd says with a wistful smile: “Boy, Belushi would have loved this place.”