Have you ever liked a place so much, that when you tried to describe it, your words totally failed you? That’s the way I feel about the House of Blues. It’s the embodiment of everything I love – good music, good art, and good food. No matter how many times I go to the House of Blues (HOB), it never gets old. If you ask me, that’s because the blues are timeless. One could argue that the blues is a dying art form, but one could also argue that blues forms the root of all modern music. When Isaac Tigrett opened the first House of Blues in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1992, he was trying to argue the second point, that blues is the root of all modern music.
There are now 13 different House of Blues locations where you can experience the food, music, art, and culture of the Mississippi Delta, where blues got its beginnings. The House of Blues came to Orlando, Florida in 1997, taking up residence in Downtown Disney (now Disney Springs). The 100 feet tall HOB water tower beckons Orlando’s music lovers to the 57,000 square foot entertainment venue for a taste of the blues.
Fitz and the Tantrums were playing on my most recent visit to House of Blues Orlando. If you eat dinner at the House of Blues restaurant before the show, you are allowed early entry into the concert hall. I’ve always been a fan of their shrimp & grits, so my friend and I dined at the House of Blues Restaurant before the concert.
The House of Blues dining room has a very interesting look to it, which I recently learned is due to their rather large collection of American folk art. The House of Blues has one of the largest collections of American folk art in the United Stated. Michael Feder, the art collector who brought these works to the House of Blues, describes the collection as “the visual representation of the blues.” You may want to walk around and take a look before you eat. Often overlooked, the House of Blues art collection is a key piece of the HOB equation, allowing customers to experience the blues with their eyes in addition to their ears.
Food has been an essential part of the HOB experience since its inception. Over the past 25 years, the House of Blues has invited a number of celebrity chefs into their kitchen, including Emeril Lagasse. Most recently, in 2012, the House of Blues invited celebrity chef, Aaron Sanchez, to update their menu. The new menu at the House of Blues emphasizes the American classics, including southern fried chicken, jambalaya, BBQ ribs, meatloaf, lobster mac & cheese, burgers, flatbreads, and more. The menu was designed to be accessible to a wide variety or people and income brackets, starting with a $9 Chicago-style hot dog and moving all the way up to a $29.50 New York Strip steak. For a restaurant located in Disney, their prices are very reasonable.
I started with a cup of the Chicken Gumbo and followed it up with the Shrimp & Grits. It wasn’t the best gumbo or the best shrimp & grits I’d ever had, but it was good comfort food, and a great way to fill up before a show. Both dishes had great flavor. The gumbo was too mild, but there was plenty of hot sauce on the table to make up for it. The shrimp & grits, on the other hand, could have been spiced down a little bit. I was actually very attached to that pre-2012 shrimp & grits recipe—change is hard—but the new recipe was still enjoyable.
After dinner comes the best part: the show. The House of Blues has really diversified over the years in terms of the types of acts they book. It’s not just straight blues any more – you can hear rock, folk, hip hop, soul, reggae…you name it. They are all branches of a great musical tree, of which blues is the root. We came to hear Fitz & the Tantrums, an indie pop band that seems to draw from all genres. It’s a little bit of rock, a little bit of soul, and a little bit clubby all at the same time.
The House of Blues concert hall is the perfect setting for a band like Fitz & the Tantrums to perform…or for any band to perform. The audience can stand right in front of the stage, close enough for a band to reach out and touch them. This close interaction leads to a surprisingly intimate show, even in a venue that holds 1500 people. The audience stands packed together, like in a crowded club. They wave together, clap together, and cheer as one.
The energetic Noelle Scaggs of Fitz and the Tantrums commanded audience participation, and everyone clapped and waved on cue. Seeing Fitz and the Tantrums perform live at the House of Blues gave me a better appreciation of the band itself. Sometimes, there’s just no way to condense all of that live energy onto a record. The venue itself greatly contributed to my enjoyment of the show. I loved the dancing lights and the confetti drop at the end of the show.
I especially loved how accessible the venue was. Anyone with a general admission standing ticket that requires accessible seating is allowed early entry and is guided to a raised platform from which one can see over the crowd. A series of ramps make it easy to maneuver a wheel chair or ECV to your seat, and the view is great. Once seated, the crowds hinder you from moving about the concert hall, but a bartender/server comes to the accessible section to take drink orders.
After the show and back in the dining room, Blues Kitchen was in full swing. Every Friday & Saturday night, beginning at 10:30pm, you can hear live blues music at the Crossroads Café. The menu is limited at that time, but there are plenty of great late night options. Our concert ticket entitled us to a free Steamin’ Tot Mess: tater tots loaded with cheese sauce, carnitas, and peppers. This was my favorite dish of the night.
A trip to the House of Blues is a real feast for the senses. Their unique combination of food, music, and art ensures that there is always something exciting to taste, to listen to, and to look at. The Fitz and the Tantrums show that I saw at the House of Blues Orlando was one of my all-time favorite concerts. It was right up there with Jamie Cullum at the 9:30 club (Washington D.C.) and Bonnie Raitt at Clearwater Jazz Holiday in Coachman Park. What I’m trying to say is that House of Blues Orlando isn’t just a good music venue—it’s one of the best in the country. Being able to have a nice meal here and view an extensive collection of American folk art is just icing on the cake. Altogether, it makes for a great evening out.