The Big Easy, with new management looking to remake the popular Portland nightspot as a music and comedy club, will officially reopen Thursday after a nearly three-month closure.
But the new managers of the club, Oliver and Harrison Keithly, may have a hard time booking local musicians. Some are upset that previous Big Easy operator Ken Bell did not have his lease for the space renewed by building owner Michael Mastronardi. Several have said it is unlikely they will play the club again without Bell in charge.
So far, the only bands scheduled to play the club in January are A Band Beyond Description, a Grateful Dead cover band, and Hello Newman, a ’90s cover band. Maine comedians George Hamm and Ray Harrington are also scheduled to play the club in the next two weeks, and other comedians are booked for the coming months.
Several local musicians on Monday said that the Keithlys should be given a chance to earn their own reputation in the music scene.
“I know people loved Ken Bell, and some people don’t want to play there, but I don’t think Oliver should be punished for something he had nothing to do with,” said Sean Slaughter, lead singer for Clubber Lang, a hard-rock band that has played The Big Easy several times. “I’m glad that somebody’s reopening the place and I’d definitely play there. In the music scene, the more clubs there are, the better off we’ll all be.”
Oliver Keithly said Monday the club’s schedule will build “slowly” as he gets the word out that it has reopened and makes connections in the local music scene.
Bell had managed The Big Easy, at 55 Market St., for more than five years before it closed in October. At the time, building owner Mastronardi would say only that the lease with Bell had expired and was not being renewed. Bell did not comment on the closing.
But many local musicians said they could not imagine the club without Bell. Longtime Portland music scene fixtures like Spencer Albee and Pete Kilpatrick have said they want to see how the club’s new management operates before committing to playing there again.
Before taking over The Big Easy space, Oliver Keithly had run The Comedy Connection on Portland’s waterfront, which hosted local and national comedians for about 20 years. Popular Maine comedian Bob Marley played there often, as Keithly is his manager. Marley will play The Big Easy around St. Patrick’s Day in March, Keithly said.
Keithly ran the Comedy Connection until October 2012, about a month after it and the adjacent Porthole Restaurant were shut down when a city health inspector found a rat infestation. Keithly ran both businesses but did not own the building. His lease was not renewed when it expired, and a renovated Porthole has reopened under new management.
The Big Easy had been operating as a music club on Market Street since the late 1990s under various managers, and had been a blues club on Fore Street for several years before that.
Chris Dow, drummer and singer with A Band Beyond Description, said his band had played a regular weekly gig at The Big Easy ever since Bell first took it over. He said he’s glad that the Keithlys have reopened it, and that some of the staff has remained in place as well.
He said he knows that some musicians are upset and say they will boycott The Big Easy. But he thinks, and hopes, more bands will play the club in the future.
“I know it’s difficult any time a bar changes hands,” said Dow. “Some people took it personally.”
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: