Shortly after the April death of Massachusetts guitar legend John Geils, tributes began pouring in from Boston and beyond; fans posted their favorite J. Geils Band tracks to Facebook, while legendary musicians like bandmate Peter Wolf and E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt expressed condolences and respect through statements. On Lansdowne Street, three female artists, none of which were alive during the celebrated heyday of The J. Geils Band, immediately began work on their own personalized tribute at the House of Blues.
“I remember being in the car on the way to work here, and hearing the news J. Geils died,” says 24-year-old Hannah Earley. “And I was like ‘well, we’ve got a project.’”
Earley, along with Molly Kafka, 24, and Meghan Pierce, 28, make up the current generation of in-house painters who have been curating the remembrance murals that adorn the exterior of music venue. Geils’ memorial, which was unveiled in May, currently resides in the space between the main entrance and outdoor box office facing Lansdowne Street, in the same highly visible spot where the murals of the late, great Sharon Jones and a David Bowie/Prince combo memorial once decorated the wall.
“He passed away April 11, and we started that week,” Kafka says of Geils.
Aside from raising a glass to musical legends, the various tributes all have one other thing in common — they are the artistic work of the trio as a collective, adding their own personal touches to the halls of the House of Blues for the past few years. Kafka, who joined up last year, is the newest addition to the painting crew. Earley became part of the team in 2015, and Pierce serves as the veteran of the group, on board since 2011.
Their work in the rock club, however, isn’t limited to memorial murals. The three girls make up a tag team of in-house artists who work for the House of Blues, touching up the venue with maintenance painting, and more recently, adding other types of rock murals throughout the venue walls and stairwells, all giving the venue a fresh dose of color. Their Instagram-worthy work on the memorial murals has been their crowning glory, but the team has actually been working on murals inside of the venue since 2014 — a perfect series of additions for a building that also holds the largest collection of folk art in North America.
Starting with a larger-than-life painting of Chuck Berry, the venue’s team of painters (which has been in rotation for years now, but currently includes Earley, Pierce, and Kafka) commenced their project with the house right stairwell to demonstrate the evolution of blues into modern day hip-hop.
“We go from the blues into disco into rap,” explains Pierce, gesturing to generations of artists spread across the walls. The stairwell ends with Grandmaster Flash on the third floor, and Billie Holiday and Ray Charles are next on the team’s to-do list. In fact, aside from a chunk devoted to Elvis, the entire stairwell is dedicated to black artists and their tremendous influence on the evolution of music.
“We have a program here called Blues Schoolhouse, and it’s an educational program for middle schoolers and public school kids,” Earley adds. “They have performances down in the music hall, and they have a live band, and they talk about the history of music, down from blues and Robert Johnson, and how that evolved through rock and roll and funk. We were basing these [stairwell murals] to kind of go with that lesson plan a little bit.”
All of the murals have been proposed and designed by the girls themselves, and while they have to get approval from the venue, the all-important artistic details remain in their hands. In a far corner of the third floor of the House of Blues sits “The Attic,” a rock and roll version of your average grandpa’s workshop where the three work on designs amongst clusters of paint cans and old tour posters.
The stairwell on the opposite side of the venue offers the best of the rest: Stevie Nicks poses with a jumbo top hat, Iggy Pop shows off his gaunt figure, Freddie Mercury belts into his microphone stand in all his mustache’d glory. The upper section of the stairwell pays homage to bands local to Boston, featuring Aerosmith, Peter Wolf, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Above a lighting fixture, the Ramones lean against a brick wall, a mural the girls were able to pull off with the help of some scaffolding (“it’s only mildly terrifying,” they all agree), while Aladdin Sane-era Bowie hides in the smoking section of the main floor, tucked under the staircase.
When Bowie and Prince passed away in quick succession last year, the murals expanded to the outdoors, first with the Bowie/Prince tribute in 2016, followed Sharon Jones in January, and J. Geils this past spring. The girls use fake brick paneling from Home Depot for each mural, painting the piece together inside and then screwing in into the actual brick wall outside. When it’s time to install a new panel, all they have to do is unscrew the one that’s currently on display and move it backstage, where Bowie, Prince, and Jones currently reside in the load-in area of the first floor.
While the team often works on the stairwell murals individually, “claiming” their favorite artists to work on, the larger tribute memorials are always a collaborative effort (that yes, often involve painting over each other). The result, however, is an absurdly accurate eye for detail, from Jones’ sequined shirt to the unique shade of every one of Bowie’s ginger locks. J. Geils, however, presented more of a design challenge than usual.
“J. Geils was interesting too, because he’s not the frontrunner of the band, per se,” says Pierce. “We found a pretty generic photo of the J. Geils Band, and then we took him and enlarged him, and projected that image… we pushed two images together to make that one.”
Their work also spans into less obvious spaces; the girls do touchups on existing art after the wear and tear of drunk patrons takes its toll, paint the “no smoking” and “exit” signs, and work their artistic magic on untouched parts of the walls, including areas of the adjacent House of Blues restaurant. Pierce recently painted an army of mandalas on the left side of the mezzanine (“I think there’s about 147 of them,” she admits, “not that I’m counting or anything”), while Kafka took on a portrait of Ganesh and Earley made a visual version of delta blues frontrunner Robert Johnson in the legendary crossroads, ready to sell his soul to the devil for blues fame.
The team’s talents have already begun to spread beyond Lansdowne Street; their work has crept towards Allston, expanding to the Paradise Rock Club, where they were commissioned to do 40th anniversary artwork for the venue. It’s a good thing, too, because the House of Blues only has so many inches of wall to cover, and they’re getting painted over with more rock and roll folk art and mandalas all the time.
Photos by Victoria Wasylak; follow her on Twitter @VickiWasylak.