Tuesday 21 May 2019

Aiken all over - concert promoters face biggest crisis

From Abba to ZZ Top, they brought the stars to Ireland through an era of bombs, riots and recession. But with the Garth Brooks saga, the Aiken family has faced its biggest ever crisis.

The fiasco over the Croke Park Garth Brooks concerts is the biggest crisis Peter Aiken has ever faced.
The fiasco over the Croke Park Garth Brooks concerts is the biggest crisis Peter Aiken has ever faced.
Garth Brooks
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

By the middle of this week it seemed like a calamitous outcome for a family that helped to bring some of the biggest stars of the entertainment world to Ireland.

The Aikens have brought Abba, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Simon and Garfunkel. The promoters hosted Bob Dylan, Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and many more. Their word was their bond, and many of the stars still come back.

Peter Aiken, the 53-year-old who now runs the business, was unsurprisingly "shell-shocked" as he explained on Tuesday why five Garth Brooks concerts would not go ahead. But by Wednesday night fans still lived with a sliver of hope that the shows could be on again.

Depending on your point of view this saga has been as heart-breaking or stomach-churning as a mawkish country melody.

There were doubts about the Croke Park gigs right from the start in January, as residents kicked up stink. But Garth Brooks could feel reassured then that his perfect comeback in front of 400,000 rapturous fans would happen as planned.

As Aiken put it himself: "All along I told him everything was going to be okay."

But was Peter Aiken over-optimistic in his assumption that it would all turn out right on the night? Experienced and canny operators in the music business suggested that he was.

Henry Mountcharles, who has brought some of the biggest stars in the world to Slane, told the Irish Independent: "If I decided to put on five shows someone in Meath County Council would have said to me 'Henry, get a grip ... that is not workable' and they would be right."

Others in the music industry also felt that five concerts in a row might be a tall order.

Peter Aiken was criticised for the way the Garth fiasco played out, but his family deserves credit for bringing acts to both sides of the Border through an era of bombs, bullets and riots – not to mention deep recession.

Peter's late father Jim, for decades the leading promoter in the country, was known as "Gentleman Jim" – and by Tom Jones as "the Padre", due to his training as a priest in Maynooth.

The teetotaller abandoned his priestly vocation to become a maths and science teacher before devoting his life to putting on concerts.

Aiken had to have charm to win over stars, and build their trust: he also had to have a certain steeliness to negotiate deals with some of the shrewdest managers in showbusiness.

His maths background served him well. Friends recall that while the agents worked out sums on calculators, Aiken had the figures in his head. Peter is a trained accountant.

For the Aiken family and Brooks and some of the other megastars that have played here over the decades, the strong connection has meant more than seven-figure ticket sales, posters and vast open-air stages. There are also bonds of friendship.

When Jim Aiken died in 2007, Garth Brooks and his wife the singer Trisha Yearwood cancelled all their engagements and flew to Belfast for the funeral.

Bruce Springsteen sent a letter to the Aiken family home as soon as he heard of the promoter's grave illness. It read: "We have just got the news over here. We're crushed. Such a big part of the joy we feel when we come to Ireland is seeing that big grin of yours when we come off stage."

The business of booking tickets is now mostly done on flickering computer screens, but it was different when Aiken senior started out.

It is said that he used to traverse the country in his car with a boot full of tickets and drop them off at shops.

Along the way. Some days later he would return to pick up a boot full of cash.

In 1971, it was Aiken who brought Led Zeppelin to Dublin's National Stadium boxing arena and the Ulster Hall in Belfast, where they performed 'Stairway to Heaven' for the first time.

Bassist John Paul Jones later recalled: "The audience were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew".

Aiken was paid by cheque by Led Zep, and according to legend, put the entire six-figure sum on the 3/1 losing favourite in the 2000 Guineas at the Curragh.

He once acted as chauffeur to Tom Jones on his Irish tour, and the singer insisted that Aiken take him to the seminary where he had trained to be a priest.

After walking around the grounds, Jones remarked loudly in his rousing Welsh lilt: "Do you really think these fellows have nothing else on their minds except God?"

As well as fixing the deals, the Aikens have to cater to the requests and whims of the stars. Jim and Peter were usually amenable, but not all these demands were met.

Luciano Pavarotti wanted to play in a town square where the Pope had said Mass, but it is reported that Big Jim replied : "I know somewhere the Pope will never be."

He promptly organised a concert at that bastion of unionism, Stormont Castle.

Belfast was a dangerous city in which to do business in the early 1970s, but Aiken ensured that it continued to rock, carefully navigating between paramilitaries on both sides. Peter Aiken grew up in an environment where gigs could be disrupted by bomb threats, but mostly the show went on. At the age of 15 he went on the road with Rory Gallagher as a roadie. He toured the country in the band's van on the UK and Ireland tour, and took charge of the lights.

After training as an accountant, he could have continued in that profession, but the lure of music proved too strong.

In the 1990s the Aikens were overtaken by MCD as the country's leading music promoters. Denis Desmond's operation nabbed acts like U2 and most of the big music festivals.

But Peter has created his own musical legacy. With developer Harry Crosbie he set up Vicar Street , an essential part of the Dublin concert scene; and he brings top acts to the Marquee in Cork. And when big "heritage acts", like Dylan and Springsteen, return to Ireland, they use Aiken as the promoter. Peter Aiken said, when he heard of the cancellation, that it would be a huge personal and financial blow for a company that is half-a-century on the go.

But perhaps the Aikens have banked enough goodwill to survive any eventuality, regardless of the outcome of the Garth Brooks melodrama. Without them many stages would have been dark.


Live in Ireland - Six of the promoters best


RDS, 1979

Benny Anderson got the crowd going playing Danny Boy before the band struck up Voulez-Vous.


National Stadium, 1971

Every self-respecting heavy rock fan claims they were there.


Starlight Ballroom, Belfast, 1967

They brought psychedelia to the North in the pre-Troubles era.


Slane Castle, 1985

The Boss and his E Street Band played their debut Irish concert in front of 100,000 on a blazing hot day.


Croke Park, 1997

The Friends in Low Places star enthralled fans with three sold-out shows.

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