Bad case of the blues as music festival companies cease trading

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The Independent Culture

Britain's premier blues event, the Bishopstock blues festival in Devon, has gone into liquidation amid mounting debts and rows with international stars. Two companies run by Helen Myers, the charismatic director of the five-year-old festival, ceased trading after a financial crisis emerged when this year's event, featuring Van Morrison and Nina Simone, ended on 27 August.

The festival, which cost £120 for a three-day ticket, was held in the grounds of Mrs Myers's elegant 13th-century episcopal manor house, Bishop's Court Palace, near Exeter.

But the event, postponed from May because of the foot and mouth crisis, has been beset by rows over unpaid bills and disputes over cancelled appearances after six major blues acts, including Otis Rush and Jimmy Smith, were dropped at short notice.

Mrs Myers blamed the cancellations on the costs of rescheduling the event and said she was "heartbroken" about them. "Due to circumstances beyond my control, the financial controllers had to reduce the line-up," she said.

However, the Independent on Sunday has established that since 1999 a series of county court judgments have been made against Mrs Myers's companies and she faced further action by creditors involving claims totalling more than £80,000.

She staved off an attempt by her own solicitors, Davenport Lyons, earlier this year to wind up one of her two companies. Debt claims have been filed by her bank, local printers, graphic designers and stage-equipment suppliers.

Since February 2000, her companies amassed more than £65,000 in debts in 16 county court judgments. One financial reporting company said last week that 12 claims totalling £39,057 were still showing as unsettled. Mrs Myers said: "As far as I'm concerned, they've all been settled."

However, several creditors, including Barclays Bank and Cuckooland, a Leicester-based design firm owed £3,607, have been notified of a creditors' meeting in London on 19 September. One legal source said a "substantial deficit" had now emerged in the companies' accounts.

The blues stars were angry about their cancellations. The Delta Blues Cartel, four musicians regarded as the blues equivalent of the Buena Vista Social Club, said they were given 72 hours' notice. They issued a statement blaming Bishopstock for the cancellation.

Thom Wolke, manager for Guy Davis, a New York guitarist booked to appear in May, set up a website last month accusing the festival of repeatedly and unfairly cancelling his appearance. It was closed a day before the event began after Mrs Myers's lawyers threatened his internet service provider with legal action. Mr Wolke says he plans to press Mrs Myers to pay Mr Davis's outstanding fee.

Jim Bateman, manager of the revered 77-year-old guitarist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, said Brown's appearance was cancelled despite an agreed contract. "At the last minute, they called and said that they were having cashflow problems," he said.

Before her decision to go into voluntary liquidation became public late last week, Mrs Myers approached all six acts about reappearing at next year's festival. Davenport Lyons now says that questions about whether the event would take place again were "premature", but had previously said that Mrs Myers was looking into contractual obligations to those acts.

The firm added: "Mrs Myers and her family have put considerable energy and effort into creating an event that has given considerable pleasure to many thousands of people. It is now simply the case that [it] has become clear that the financial circumstances are such that it is only proper to wind the companies up."