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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Astoria 2, London, October 3rd 2007

We thought we were going to the Mean Fiddler to watch “blues legend” Walter Trout, but when we got to the door (late, because we’d been enjoying a very interesting dinner along with our mates and decided to have “that other bottle of wine”) discovered it was the Mean Fiddler no more, having transformed itself into the Astoria 2. You see there’s been some movement in the tectonic plates of the live music business – probably the most profitable place to be in music at the moment (closely followed by merchandise and intellectual property – aka ring-tones and licensing). The Mean Fiddler was set up in 1982 by Vince Power, an Irish music entrepreneur with something of a reputation ('I'm very soft and I'm very hard and I'm trying to find the middle ground. If anyone tries to turn me over, I take a very hard view of it.').

(Attention readers: may we suggests you order this book before you read this review?)
It was originally a club in Harlesden – but became the name of the holding company that controlled almost all the live music venues in London, in addition to the Reading Festival, the Fleadh, the Leeds Festival, Tribal Gathering, and the management of Glastonbury. And the club in turn moved to the basement of the Astoria, taking its name with it. But in 2005 Power sold out (for about £13 million) – forming VPMG and managing a variety of London restaurants and small venues including the ghastly Pigalle.

    The buyers were Live Nation, with a 51% share, and Power’s long time business rival and fellow Irishman, Denis Desmond, who in addition to owning Ireland’s largest festival Oxygen, also has significant interests, through various businesses in T in the Park, the V Festivals and the Isle of Wight Festivals (for what it’s worth Desmond is also joint franchisee of Yo! Sushi in Ireland). They subsequently tried, but failed, to buy the Brixton Academy and Shepherds Bush Empire. And last year they signed a 15 year deal to manage the refurbished Wembley Arena. Then, in August this year, Mean Fiddler Holdings (or to be absolutely correct Hamsard 2786 Limited) sold the Hammersmith Apollo and the Forum, and then its smaller London venues, its interest in the G-A-Y-E nightclub, and its name, to the MAMA group for (apparently) over £40 million.
The remaining business – the Festivals and the Astoria (and Astoria 2) was renamed Festival Republic, and they appear to have used some of the dosh from that sale to purchase what remaining acreage of the Reading Festival site they didn’t already own. MAMA (with over 50 per cent of their business owned by institutional investors) owns (in addition to its recent acquisitions) the expanding network of Barfly venues, and a management business that handles a number of leading producers and artists such as Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs and the Cribs.        


      They plan to refurbish the ‘old’ Mean Fiddler, “roll-out” the Jazz Café brand across Europe, and further expand the Barfly business (and reopen the old Mean Fiddler in Harlesden). And more besides I’ve no doubt. Ant the reason for telling you this? Just so you remember that while we’re out there having fun people are making serious, serious amounts of money out of live music. And it’s rarely the bands.
Ok. So we got there late and walked down into the small concrete-clad club where the band was already on stage. Middle-aged men, heavy odour-rich clothes, white faced, lank unwashed hair, soulless staring eyes. And that’s only the audience - the majority of whom formed a phalanx at the front of stage staring intently at Trout’s fingers as they danced up and down his fret board. Actually it could be a fair description for the band too – who to be frank, despite the fair amount of energy in their performance, look dog-tired. I’m not surprised. They’ve already played over a hundred gigs this year before coming here, and their October tour of the UK sees them playing on 29 nights – just two rest days. They’re then doing almost the same during November in Northern Europe. It’s a tough life. And, no doubt, not as rewarding as owning a chain of rock venues or a couple of festivals, or the whole bloody lot.
Walter Trout
Trout, you will know, is a 54-year-old New Jersey native who having taken up the blues guitar, travelled to Los Angeles where he played in the bands of a variety of biggish names (Percy Mayfield, John Lee Hooker and Joe Tex) before joining Canned Heat in 1981.
Four years later he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers where he stayed for five years before going solo and building a substantial following in Europe through non-stop touring. And, in addition to releasing almost twenty albums, non-stop touring is still what he still does. He is, I can see, a hugely accomplished player, but in the cramped Astoria 2 he chooses to devote much of the time to what I would best describe as ‘Hendrix moments’ – and very extensive ones at that. It’s fast, it’s frenetic, and it’s fascinating for the ageing guitar geeks at the front, but from where we are it’s frankly as boring as hell after the first ten minutes or so. Walter Trout
It’s a shame, because when he does slow down you can really see and hear the talent (and if you like you can hear some nice stuff on his myspace page), but it’s mostly subsumed in this manic gun-slinging guitar. Anyway the audience love it and bring him back for an encore. And Walter loved it too. “Thank you London. Thank you London. I really needed this gig. I really needed this gig. You know I haven’t been feeling too well recently, but I really needed this gig. Goodnight London. I’m Walter Trout and I’m cured”.
And I didn’t make that up. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)
Kate's Jim White photo album

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