On Saturday, the Blues Prophets had a CD-release show scheduled at the Big Easy as they looked to do what hundreds of local bands have done over the past decade or so in that venue at 55 Market Street, in Portland: draw a crowd, dish some merch, and have a good time playing music in one of Portland’s best and longest-running nightclubs.
It was, however, not meant to be. On Monday, the band issued a notice that the gig was cancelled; by Wednesday word was out all over town: The Big Easy was closed.
“It’s a little bit confusing because it’s so fresh,” said Michael Mastronardi, when reached by phone on Friday afternoon. Owner of the building that houses the Big Easy (and the White Cap Grille in the same building), he said, “at the moment it is closed and while we hoped we’d be able to have a smooth transition, it just hasn’t worked out that way, so we’re doing what we can to see about opening it up as quickly as we can.”
Keen observers of Portland City Council meetings may even have noticed that Mastronardi went before the council on October 8 to get a liquor license granted to “55 Market St. Blues Club, LLC d/b/a The Big Easy,” something the City Clerk’s office confirmed was necessary because of a change in ownership.
But what happened? Why isn’t Ken Bell the owner anymore?
“The lease ran out,” said Mastronardi, who is also first vice-president of Portland’s Downtown District, “and the efforts to continue forward just broke down at the last minute. We had thought we’d worked out a transition to the former staff, but that just hasn’t proven possible, or at least as quickly possible, as we had hoped. It’s been difficult.”
But why wouldn’t Bell just continue running the place? He was universally liked in the Portland music scene and seemed to enjoy his job.
“That’s really for Ken to say,” Mastronardi said. “He was a great manager. He has great rapport with the music community. He had a great staff, and I hoped that we’d be able to provide an orderly transition.”
So it was Bell’s choice to leave? “It’s been a difficult year for him and for me and I think we are both surprised that it wasn’t able to work out,” Mastronardi said.
When reached via Facebook, Bell declined a phone call, but did answer a few questions via chat. “This was not my choice,” he wrote. “The Big Easy was built with the hearts and souls of the musicians, staff, and myself. No longer having the club has been difficult for everyone . . . The best I can say at this point is that conflicts with the landlord and the expiration of the lease have caused the closing of the Big Easy. I truly regret that this has come to pass and I hope to open another venue the musicians of Portland can call home soon.”
Mastronardi confirmed that all of the staff is without work at the Big Easy until it reopens. He hopes, he said, to reopen as the Big Easy in the near future.
What will it take to get it reopened? “That’s what we’re looking at,” said Mastronardi. “That’s the tricky part.”