A focal point of Portland’s vibrant music scene has closed, and its uncertain future has musicians worried.
The Big Easy, a busy venue that has operated on Market Street in the Old Port since the late 1990s, closed abruptly last weekend. The building’s owner, Michael Mastronardi, said the lease with the Big Easy’s owner, Ken Bell, has expired but the venue will likely reopen soon.
Mastronardi would not elaborate on the reasons Bell will no longer run the Big Easy, and Bell could not be reached on Thursday.
Musicians were stunned this week to learn of the closing, and were left wondering what happened.
Several said it’s hard to imagine the Big Easy continuing in any form without Bell.
Musicians said Bell helped them maximize their earnings for each show, and through his personality and booking made the Big Easy a favorite hangout of musicians and music fans.
“I’d like to hear more about what happened, but I just can’t imagine us playing there without Ken,” said Matt Cosby, 32, bass player in the Pete Kilpatrick Band. “I’ve been playing there since I was 19 years old. Ken has been such an integral part of the music scene, so accommodating to the musicians. It’s really been our favorite place to play.”
Mastronardi would not answer questions on the phone, but answered several in two emails. In one, he wrote “the Big Easy is temporarily closed. The lease has expired and the re-opening has been delayed. I’m hoping it can re-open soon.”
Mastronardi has owned the building at the corner of Middle and Market streets since 1991. He is also managing partner of the White Cap Grille, which operates in a space above the Big Easy.
The Big Easy began as a dance club on Fore Street, featuring lots of blues and swing bands.
It moved to Market Street in the late 1990s, taking over the space that had been occupied by Granny Killam’s, a popular bar featuring local bands.
Mastronardi wrote in his email that the lease for the Big Easy expired in August and “we were trying to work out a transition in time to avoid going dark, but weren’t able to do it in time.”
Mastronardi received a conditional “lounge with entertainment with dance” license from the Portland City Council on Oct. 7.
The license was granted for “55 Market St. Blues Club, LLC d/b/a The Big Easy” so it appears there is a chance that the venue’s name will stay the same.
Mastronardi had nothing but praise for Bell’s operation of the Big Easy.
“I think Ken was a great manager who developed a great crew and who was instrumental in returning the Big Easy to prominence in the Portland music scene,” he wrote in his email. “He won’t easily be replaced.”
Lauren Wayne, a longtime concert booker in Portland who manages the State Theatre and the Port City Music Hall, said Thursday that Bell was known in Portland for making “good decisions” about who played at his club, and for treating musicians well.
She said clubs of the Big Easy’s size, about 200 to 300 capacity, are important to the entire music scene in the city.
“Small rooms are important to any local music scene, especially rooms where owners and buyers treat the musicians right and in return those musicians keep playing the room and help keep the scene alive,” said Wayne. “Small clubs and local acts curate a loyal following, a fan base, and that is the underlying current of any healthy music and arts community.”
Wayne said Bell realized how hard musicians work and often let them keep 100 of the receipts at the door.
“Yeah, he gave us everything from the door,” said Dave Gutter, lead singer for the veteran Portland band Rustic Overtones. “He loved all the bands, and that’s why so many musicians loved to play there.”
The Big Easy often had bands every day of the week, in genres from hip-hop and rap to country or funk and soul.
And it was known for weekly series like Funky Mondays, Rap Night on Wednesdays, and the “Cover to Cover” series of local bands covering one particular well-known band, on Tuesdays.
Cosby and others pointed out that the Big Easy has long been the only club in the “heart of the Old Port” with bands playing original music.
Most of the other clubs with bands playing original music are in other parts of Portland, they said.
Spencer Albee, who said he has played the Big Easy “a million times” over the years, recently organized a series there called Food Fight, featuring local musicians who work in restaurants.
Albee said that without the Big Easy, local musicians basically have one similar-sized venue that features original music, Empire on Congress Street.
Albee said that playing the Big Easy, if it continues without Bell, “would just seem silly to me.”
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: