Thursday, July 17, 2014
Donal Rooke has family on his mind, as he’ll soon begin writing a book about three generations of the Rooke clan, from Ireland to the Hungry Hill neighborhood in Springfield, to his own town of Northampton.
But as we sit and talk in the front room of The Deuce (aka the World War II Club on Conz Street in Northampton) and nurse glasses of ginger ale and ice water, I think about how Rooke has long been a member of another family, the local music community.
Rooke recently returned to a professional capacity at The Deuce, booking one night of original music per week (Fridays for now, but it will switch to Saturdays at the beginning of June).
For decades the easygoing Rooke has been a booking agent for many venues in town, giving area musicians places to play and get their unique music heard, first at Fitzwilly’s in the late-70s, then on to the Northampton Brewery, The Bay State Hotel, The Elevens (and its earlier incarnation as Harry’s), The Deuce and others. In the late-90s he ran the Northampton Music Festival, which involved hosting shows at seven or eight venues around town. He also managed a number of local acts.
It’s a long career that would make it hard for anyone to remember all the details, but Rooke mostly does, despite the seismic event in his recent history: At the end of 2011, after a longtime friend’s sudden and tragic death, he “went off the deep end,” he says, eventually having a heart attack and dealing with serious memory loss.
“When I first ended up in the hospital, I was supposed to be dying. Father Sean gave me my last rites,” Rooke said. “And then I ended up in this nursing home in Agawam, and I had no memory, no idea where I was, I was so confused. Slowly I remembered more and more. I gradually got better.”
The recuperation took time, and local musicians calling themselves the Don Rooke Appreciation Society banded together for a benefit concert to help subsidize his medical costs. By late 2012 excited word got around: Rooke had been sighted at venues like The Parlor Room in Northampton and the Luthiers Co-Op in Easthampton, back on the scene, attending shows, still supporting local performers, still mellow and kind.
No drums allowed
Rooke had been running a Sunday night open mic at The Deuce for years, right up until a few weeks before he was brought to the hospital. He’d always liked the club’s “just barely outside of town” location and laid-back vibe, and now that he was on the mend, he again made the familiar room a regular stop.
Bill Williams, The Deuce’s general manager, asked Rooke if he wanted to get back to booking the room, but, at first, Rooke declined, preferring to just hang out. Williams’ friendly persistence convinced Rooke to dip his toes back in the booking waters and he agreed to bring in talent one night a week.
Since early March, Rooke has hosted a low-key music night — no drums allowed — which usually finds locals performing as stripped-down duos. Recent shows featured longtime area folks making treks from their current homes: Paul Rocha came up from Rhode Island for his set, and the previous week, Matt Hebert, visiting from Austin, Texas, drew more than 70 friends and fans.
Rooke’s focus is on original music, and Friday night this week features one of the Valley’s most prolific songwriting duos, the Lonesome Brothers. Their performance will be the kick-off of the Jim Armenti Birthday Weekend, and they’ll play from 7 to 9:30 p.m., the scheduled time for all of the Rooke-booked shows.
Frank Manzi and Joe Boyle play on May 30, and then, after Rooke’s regular night switches to Saturday, the shows will include vocalist and voice teacher Celia Miller, who will bring along some of her students to perform on a bill shared with Jared Quinn (June 7); Dave Houghton and Katy Schneider from Fancy Trash (June 14); Mark Herschler and Peter Kim (June 21); Ed Vadas and Sue Burkhart (June 28); Philip Price and Flora Reed of Winterpills (July 5).
Ken Mairui can be reached at