Irish music 'king' Vince Power reclaims his throne with The Liverpool Feis
Founder of the all-powerful Mean Fiddler empire, Co Waterford-born promoter Vince Power was known as 'the king of music festivals' during the 1990s. Back in the game for the first time in seven years, Power told David Roy about launching The Liverpool Feis and what's driven his incredible career to date
TODAY'S Liverpool Feis festival is billed as 'the biggest celebration of Irish culture the city has ever seen' – quite a statement given that around 75 per cent of Liverpudlians claim Irish roots.
However, if there's one man who knows how to deliver on that kind of promise, it's veteran music promoter Vince Power.
The Co Waterford-born, London-based self-made mogul started his Mean Fiddler empire in 1982 with one humble yet revolutionary venue: innovations at The Mean Fiddler in Harlesden included cold Budweiser beer, a proper PA system and decent showers for the bands.
Power (71) never forgot his Irish roots while building Mean Fiddler into a global promotional enterprise, which he finally sold to rivals Clear Channel in 2005 for £38 million.
He worked with leading names of the Irish music scene right the way up from the small venue days – Van Morrison and Christy Moore were regulars at the original Mean Fiddler, with the Belfast bard having now performed over 25 times at Power's current London venue, Nell's – to his major festivals.
The budding promoter's 'customer-orientated' revamp of the then ailing Reading Festival in 1989 became a widely copied template for music events in Britain and Ireland, including Power's own Fleadh Mor – an offshoot of his iconic London-based Irish-music-orientated event The Fleadh.
Staged in Co Waterford in 1993, Fleadh Mor boasted an incredible line-up including his mates Van and Christy alongside Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis and Nanci Griffith, plus a raft of up-and-coming Irish musical talent.
"If everyone who now says they went to Fleadh Mor had actually gone to it, we wouldn't have lost money!" chuckles Power, who leaked around £1m due to a combination of unexpected logistical costs ("the roads back then were so bad," he recalls) and the fact it was deliberately staged in competition with rival Irish promoter Denis Desmond's Trip To Tipp, which also lost money that year.
"I think that was a bit more of an emotional thing for me," Power reflects. "I really wanted to bring it back to my own doorstep – maybe I was trying to prove something, I dunno."
Having also run the likes of Madstock, The Phoenix Festival, Tribal Gathering and Creamfields, in 2001 Mean Fiddler overhauled Glastonbury, revitalising it for the 21st century.
The Liverpool Feis marks the Irishman's first foray into the British music festival scene since his final Hop Farm Festival – created in 2008 as a cool 'no branding and no VIPs' endeavour – in 2011, headlined by Prince in his first ever music festival appearance outside the US.
Today's Feis boasts a top drawer line-up of Irish musical talent across three stages, including Van Morrison and Shane MacGowan, the latter of whom will play a leading role in a climactic multi-performer Main Stage Finale this evening alongside other Feis turns like Imelda May, Damien Dempsey, Sharon Shannon, Christy Dignan, Foy Vance, Finbar Furey, Albert Hammond and The Stunning.
Therapy?, The Chieftans, Hothouse Flowers, Aslan, The Coronas and Liverpool's own Nathan Carter will also be taking to the stage today at the Pier Head based event: a significant location for the Feis given the number of emigrating Irish to have arrived via the city's docks.
Growing up as one of seven children in the family cottage in Kilmacthomas (tragically, four other siblings died at an early age, including his twin sister) with his mother Brigid and father Jack, Power made his own journey across the Irish Sea in 1963 at the age of 15 when he was sent off to his aunt Kitty's boarding house in Hemel Hempsted.
When we spoke to Power earlier this week, he was busy on-site at The Liverpool Feis. Even at 71 (though he looks a good 10 years younger), the music industry veteran seems determined to maintain his trademark 'hands-on' approach.
"It goes back to my mother and my upbringing in Ireland," explains the father of eight, who was awarded a CBE for 'services to music' in 2006.
"She taught me responsibility. I had three kids by the time I was 22. When I was in my first relationship, my mother came over and said 'you've got this woman pregnant, it's your responsibility'.
He adds: "She hammered it in to me: you've got to respect people because that's the only way you get respect yourself'."
Despite being synonymous with rock and roll for nearly 40 years, Power has never led a hedonistic lifestyle.
"I never really drank for a long time – I drink wine now – and I've never smoked in my life," he reveals.
"And that is because I was working for myself and had three kids at a very early age. In the 80s and 90s you'd see a lot of drugs around but I was never really interested.
"I'm not a goody-goody but I've always had family to think of. I've got eight kids now, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren."
He adds: "I'm healthy and that's the main thing, although I had a pain in my tummy three weeks ago. I called the doctor and 12 hours later they operated on my leaking appendix.
"You're not supposed to get a leaking appendix at 71. I was in hospital for about three days until I had to check myself out. I was thinking 'the whole ward looks like they're only going to be wheeled out – so I'd better walk out while I can!'"
The past few years have been tough on Power, business-wise. Struck by a Europe-wide recession, his post-Mean Fiddler operation Vince Power Music Group went to the wall in 2010. Despite rallying with Vince Power Music Festivals in 2011, this £10m-valued endeavour also went under within a year, virtually wiping him out.
However, as evidenced by The Liverpool Feis, it seems you just can't keep Power down.
"Maybe I'm just fooling myself," he muses. "Maybe I should go and take it easy and buy myself a little cottage somewhere in Donegal. But I remember saying once that I didn't believe in inheritance – that I'd like to spend my last penny and then die.
"Unfortunately, I've already spent my last penny several times now!
"But I don't do it for the money, I do it because it's what I want to do. You've got to get up in the morning and do something. I've never felt this was a job – because I love doing it and I love music."
However, you won't be seeing Power 'sitting in' during the huge session at the climax of The Liverpool Feis.
Despite coming from a musical family – The Mean Fiddler was named for his grandfather, John Barry, "the meanest fiddler" – and producing eight musically gifted children, including folk artist daughter Brigid Mae who is currently on tour in the US, Vince himself cannot actually carry a tune.
"I love music, but I've no talent for it myself," he says ruefully.
Some of the biggest acts of the past 40 years will be eternally grateful for that.
:: The Liverpool Feis, tonight, Pier Head, Liverpool. Tickets and full line-up information available via Feis1.com