Preserving the Blues at Ground Zero Blues Club

Clarksdale, Miss., is considered "ground zero" of the blues-music movement, the site where Highway 61 intersects Highway 49 at the fabled Crossroads. Immortalized by blues legend Robert Johnson in his tune "Cross Road Blues," it symbolizes the epic struggle at the heart of blues music—the battle between good and evil and the paths we choose to take.

The Mississippi Delta region, and Clarksdale in particular, holds a mystique with blues aficionados and music fans who come from around the world to experience the art form where it began. The only trouble is that those places tend to be hard to find.

Blues evolved wherever it was performed, on front porches and in "juke joint" nightclubs across the region. But most juke joints are tucked away, out of reach from the main highways, and sometimes known only by locals. That's why Mississippi Delta native and actor Morgan Freeman teamed with Bill Luckett, a blues devotee and lawyer whom he had befriended, to create a home for likeminded travelers. Naturally, they set it at the epicenter of blues lore.

"No one ever set out to build a 'juke joint,'" said Luckett, "they just always ended up in old buildings, and when the roof fell in they would move to another building. When Morgan and I happened upon the building that became Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, it was nearly unsalvageable—in fact, the roof was caving in, and it had already rotted out several floors. It had to be torn down or repaired."

While taking care to maintain the character of the building, they added modern creature comforts and restored the structural integrity. Since opening day in 2001, Ground Zero Blues Club has been a haven for blues musicians and fans from around the world who vacation in the region to experience the music, food and community. The club has always used Peavey sound equipment, but it took a chance encounter with company founder Hartley Peavey himself to upgrade to the Versarray™ line-array system.

"One night Hartley and Mary Peavey came by the club and noticed the sound system and said, 'We appreciate you using our equipment, but some of this is old-school technology,'" Luckett said. "We started talking about the more recent innovations that Peavey has developed, and that led us to discussing this Versarray system and what it could do for the music experience here."

Within weeks, the old system was in mothballs and a Versarray line-array system was going up. Audio consultant Kent Morris teamed with Fred Poole, manager of product development at Peavey, to specify and install the new system. The pair made some minor acoustical and practical adjustments to the setup—such as moving FOH downstairs, in line with the stage and one of two four-enclosure Versarray hangs—and the club was open and running again.

Goin' To Memphis

Just across the Tennessee state line from the Mississippi Delta lies Memphis, one of many American cities to take the blues and make it its own. Here, Ike Turner—a Clarksdale native—cut what many believe to be the first rock & roll record, "Rocket 88," and where fellow Sun Records artists Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, and later Stax soulmen Isaac Hayes and Booker T. and the MGs, recorded their hits.

A city so linked to the blues made a natural second home for Ground Zero, but the audio installation at Ground Zero Blues Club-Memphis, located one block south of Beale Street on Lieutenant George Lee, is worlds apart from the century-old wooden Clarksdale venue.

"The original Ground Zero is housed in a 100-year-old cotton warehouse," said audio consultant Kent Morris. "There were many acoustical differences between the two projects, and several new challenges."

For starters, the Memphis club is a brand-new facility built with modern materials like concrete floors, walls and ceiling, with a full glass wall along the front of the club. It's also a combination bar/restaurant and performance hall, while the original venue emphasized the performance aspect. The installation team overcame a potential acoustical nightmare with help from the Versarray.

"We had to be much more careful about creating a performance area that wouldn't blast the other areas of the venue," said Morris. "We needed a more distributed audio system. A great benefit of the Versarray is that you can move energy from the front of the room to the back in a very controlled way. Because the enclosures control sound dispersion so well, we could focus their energy onto the dance floor and those tables nearby where the people most interested in hearing the music would sit.

"We have two hangs of four Versarray 112 enclosures each with two Versarray 218 subwoofers underneath, and that gives us the energy on the dance floor and listening area. We also set up a slightly delayed Impulse® 2652 speaker that covers the side area where people are seated, and another two for the bar area along the back wall where people who may want to have a conversation or pay attention to the stage are seated."

Versarray 112 enclosures are comprised of a high-frequency section and a mid-frequency section, represented by a dual-ribbon driver and 12" loudspeaker, respectively. Morris used a quad of four-channel CS® 800x4 power amplifiers to drive each side independently; as such, each loudspeaker and driver uses its own 400-watt channel. The twin Versarray 218 subwoofers, engineered to handle 2,400 watts continuous, are powered by CS 2000 amps rated at 2,150 watts at 4 ohms bridged.

Morris employed a Digitool® MX digital signal processor with eight inputs and eight outputs so he could control the individual areas separately. The Digitool allowed them to send the stereo signal from the performance area to other locations, while affording EQ and volume adjustment capabilities for those individual areas. Therefore, the operator can pre-configure the monitor mixes as presets or adjust the delay speakers independently. A set of wall panels adds additional control to the Digitool's capabilities.

"The idea behind having Digitool wall panels is since this is not just a club but a restaurant, during the day they might have background music, or maybe one guy on stage playing jazz or acoustic guitar. The remote panels allow the bartender to select a preset so that just the CD is playing in the restaurant. We wanted to keep it simple while also offering as much latitude as possible to the facility."

Added Luckett, "The blues is America's musical gift to the world. It spawned nearly all modern music, and it lives on through rhythm & blues, soul, rock & roll and hip-hop; it's part of the fabric. Hartley Peavey shares our passion for this music, and that makes this project that much more exciting."

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