Stromae at House of Blues in Boston

The typical view from SRO on the "upper mezzanine"

The typical view from SRO on the “upper mezzanine.” Better photos below.

On September 18 I went to a concert by Stromae, the Belgian rapper and singer/songwriter  at the House of Blues in Boston.  Stromae is a consummate performer, drawing on a variety of musical influences to put on an amazing show.  Imagine American hip-hop meets la chanson française, or rather la chanson belge, as Stromae would probably prefer.

He was in top form, as was his band, all dressed in uniform.  The animations on the large screen at the back of the stage were both original and creatively used to stoke audience expectations, to hold their interest during pauses, and to complement the live performances.  For example, at one point the screen provided a crowd of virtual back up dancers performing in perfect unison.  The lighting designer is to be commended for the elegant, yet ever-changing, exciting stage lighting, completely coordinated with the costumes and mood of the songs.

He also had a great opening act.  The concert was the first time I heard anything by Jidenna, who’s part of Janelle Monae’s Wondaland project, but his short set made me an instant fan.

It was a great show, but I can’t say I enjoyed it as much as I’d have liked, largely because of the venue in which it was held. The House of Blues (HOB) is a legendary venue, and the artists who perform there seem to really love it.  For fans, however, it is a different story, depending on the area your ticket admits you to!  I bought my tickets for the Stromae concert months before the show, and it sold out quickly.  They were general admission, but I didn’t even notice the location until the night of the show when I printed the tickets and saw “Upper Mezzanine” indicated. Had I realized that when I was purchasing the tickets, I would not have done so. I’d been up there before. It’s standing room only, and the view is terrible, yet the tickets are not significantly cheaper than tickets for the floor.

First off, the term “Upper Mezzanine” is not the proper designation for this area of the HOB.  Consult a dictionary and you will find that mezzanine is defined as the lower balcony of a theater, or a small floor between two main floors of the building.  The word comes to English via French and Italian, and is ultimately derived from the Latin word for “middle.”  In the HOB there are two partial floors above the ground floor, and the “upper mezzanine is the higher of the two.  The use of a phrase such as “upper mezzanine” might be appropriate if the venue had two mezzanine levels and a balcony above that, as some theaters do, or perhaps even to designate the higher section of a single mezzanine floor.  But at the HOB it is the highest level and should be designated the balcony, and it should be designated the balcony.  It would give ticket buyers a better indication of what their view will be.

This erroneous nomenclature is not the problem, though. The fact is that unless you are fortunate and early enough to snag one of the places right next to the railing, standing seats on both the mezzanine and upper mezzanine are terrible places to watch the show from.  They are crowded and everyone is at the same level.  On the ground floor this is acceptable because the stage is elevated enough that you can see if from almost anywhere.  But on the balconies you are looking down, so if anyone is in front of you, your view is obstructed.  People on the “mezzanine” levels also don’t have access to the artists’ merchandise tables, which are on the ground floor.  Moreover, HOB seems to have done everything possible to make things worse.

For example, there is an area in front of the bar on the lower mezzanine that has a black wall extending from the railing to the ceiling just a few feet in front of it.  It was not there when the venue first opened, and its sole purpose seems to be obstruction of the view from that part of the railing. I suspect it was added so that people won’t block passage to the bar by standing in that location, but it is incredibly annoying because it takes away a few feet of precious rail space, and blocks the view from an even larger area.  It also means you can’t see the stage when you go to the bar, which makes me particularly unlikely to order a drink from that bar, since it means I can’t see while I wait to be served, which can be a while.  If I am correct that the concern is that the people congregating in front of the bar will block passage to the seats at the front of the lower mezzanine, then moving the bar down to the end of the floor would be a much more sensible solution than that barrier is.

As bad as this is, it is on the “upper mezzanine” that the arrangement is completely ridiculous.  There is seating on both ends of the floor, and there is “box” seating in front section of the center.  Behind that is bleacher seating. In the center section, the general admission standing area is between the boxes and bleacher seats.  It is behind the seating area on the right and left, toward the back of the venue.   What this means is that whenever the people in the reserved seats stand up, as one is inclined to do at a concert, it obstructs the view of those behind them.  Moreover, security, people carrying drinks, and people looking for their seats all pass through a narrow space between the standing spectators and those seated in front of them.  It’s extremely annoying!  The security is also inconsistent in enforcing where people can stand.  Early in the show you may be asked to move back closer to the wall to keep the passage in front open, but you will very likely find that people who stand exactly where you were are allowed to stay there is they stop their later.

There are televisions throughout the venue that allow you to see what is happening on stage.  This would make up for the limited view, but they are not particularly large or high definition monitors, so you don’t see much.  Moreover, the cameras that provide the coverage of the show are fixed to take in the whole stage. They do not function like the stage side monitors one usually sees at concerts. They never move or zoom in, so it’s like watching the show from the back of the venue.   With the exception of the fact that the view is not obstructed by the heads or cell phones of those in front of you, the image is not significantly better than the one from the “upper mezzanine.”

If you have tickets for one of the mezzanine levels, be sure to eat before you come to the venue.  One is obliged to remain on the floor for which one has tickets. There is no food at the bars, and if you want to go to the HOB Restaurant, you will need to be escorted there. That means you will miss that part of the show, because there are no monitors in the restaurant.  As I indicated, people on the balconies can’t even get to the artist’s merchandise table, which is on the ground floor.

I could go on, but I think my point is clear.  The standing room seats on the mezzanine level of the HOB are by far my least favorite place to view a concert from, bar none, anywhere.  Even tickets to the lawn at one of those big amphitheater venues are preferable, because you have the ability to sit, move around freely, and there are always monitors offering a great coverage of what is happening on the stage.  Unfortunately there are few other venues comparable to the HOB in size, and consequently some of my favorite artists play there. If you have ground floor tickets and you get there early, the HOB is a fine venue.  If, however, your tickets are for the mezzanine or upper mezzanine, you might as well stay home.

It’s unfortunate.  I like a lot about HOB.  The decor is cool, the food in the restaurant usually good (though it has its off nights!), and the HOB Foundation does some very good work.  But every time I go it feels a bit more corporate, and seems to have lost all its Rock and Roll charm!

In any case, here are a few images of the concert, such as they are.  I’m sorry they aren’t better.

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