Since its grand opening on Jan. 29, 1994, the House of Blues has been a major presence in the New Orleans music scene.
The House of Blues celebrates its 20th anniversary Saturday with Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers, bluesy singer-songwriter-guitarist Colin Lake and special guests from the local music community. The show is free.
“We’ve done a ton of New Orleans music through the years and we love Kermit to death,” longtime House of Blues talent buyer Sonny Schneidau said ahead of the anniversary observance. “Kermit is an ambassador of New Orleans. We couldn’t think of anyone more appropriate than him to celebrate our 20th.”
“We are proud to be a part of the cultural fabric of New Orleans,” said Robert Rizzuto, House of Blues’ general manager. “We look forward to creating 20 more years of entertainment memories for the people of our community and beyond.”
Starting with its 850-capacity main music room and restaurant, House of Blues grew into an entertainment complex that includes The Parish, which accommodates 370, and, opened last spring, Big Mama’s Lounge on Decatur Street.
The French Quarter venue made a big first impression its premier year, presenting three acts usually seen in far larger performance spaces, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Aerosmith.
Other iconic performers who have appeared on the House of Blues stage during its 20 years of operation include Elton John, Fats Domino, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Etta James, George Clinton, B.B. King, Alice Cooper, Elvis Costello, Buddy Guy and Dolly Parton.
The House of Blues New Orleans was the second location in the chain of music venues and restaurants founded in 1992 in Cambridge, Mass., by Isaac Tigrett. He’d previously co-founded the internationally successful Hard Rock Café chain.
Live Nation Entertainment, an international entertainment powerhouse that owns Ticketmaster and operates 139 venues, including the Hollywood Palladium and the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam, acquired the House of Blues chain in 2006. The Live Nation acquisition continued the House of Blues venues’ history of nationwide reach and deep pockets.
The original House of Blues in Cambridge closed in 2003. The chain’s New Orleans location is the oldest continuously operating site among the current 13 locations, which include Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas and two metro Los Angeles locations.
Musicians at the House of Blues New Orleans’ 1994 grand opening included the Blues Brothers Band (featuring HOB investor Dan Aykroyd), Dr. John, Delbert McClinton, John Mooney and the late New Orleans blues and gospel vocalist Marva Wright.
A few nights later Aerosmith showed up and spontaneously asked to play at the new venue. HOB obliged, adding the classic rock band to the night’s already booked show featuring blues singer-guitarist John Mooney. Tickets were still $5.
In its two decades, the House of Blues has presented multiple Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, Grammy winners and rising stars.
“We’ve been the first New Orleans gig for a lot of artists who are household names at this point,” Schneidau said, among them Dave Matthews, John Mayer, the Black Keys and Arcade Fire.
Local stars with international fame also appeared at the venue, including Domino, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers and Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue.
Domino played a New Year’s Eve show and for the venue’s fifth and 10th anniversaries.
“We were honored to have him,” Schneidau said.
Among the early decisions the House of Blues management made for its New Orleans location was to lure Schneidau away from Tipitina’s. He’d worked at the music institution on Napoleon Avenue since its 1977 opening.
“We’d had some great artists at Tip’s but nothing on the level of Clapton or Dylan,” Schneidau said.
Clapton and Dylan played the House of Blues a few weeks apart in November 1994. British singer-guitarist Clapton’s appearance followed the release of his blues-roots album, “From The Cradle.” His three-night stand in New Orleans was in one of a series of close-up residency engagements including Buddy Guy’s Legends club in Chicago and the House of Blues in Los Angeles.
Guest star Jimmie Vaughan sat in for the first of Clapton’s HOB shows and local music legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown appeared during the subsequent nights.
During Dylan’s two consecutive nights at the House of Blues, the famously reserved, enigmatic singer-songwriter actually reached out to slap the outstretched hands of his fans.
“He was smiling,” Schneidau recalled. “You don’t always get that at a Dylan show. I think he really enjoyed the proximity to his fans and the feedback.”
County music legend Cash pulled into the House of Blues in 1995 in an all-black bus, “down to the lug nuts,” Schneider said. His audience included then-Gov. Edwin Edwards.
“The governor came out to see quite a few shows,” Schneidau remembered. “He always came out for Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino.”
John made two HOB appearances, the first for a private MTV party during a convention of the National Association of Television Program Executives, the second for a live broadcast of VH1’s “Storytellers.”
“Elton was surrounded by folks because we sat people on the stage,” Schneidau said. “An incredible night.”
Early shows in the second 20 years of the House of Blues will include Trey Anastasio from Phish (Feb. 7 and 8), Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (Feb. 22) and Willie Nelson (March 7).
“We’ve got some good stuff coming up,” Schneidau said.