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Abilene, the little corner saloon that could — and has for 15 years

A man sits at a bar in a dimly-lit room with a pint.
Max Schulte
Danny Deutsch at his bar, Abilene, in Rochester.

Hayes Carll does not fly at the stratospheric level of Bob Dylan. But he’s been a growing presence on the touring singer-songwriter scene and can reliably fill a club most nights — like the show he played a few summer evenings ago at Abilene Bar & Lounge, drawing a comfortable 50 or so people to the outdoor stage.

After the show, Danny Deutsch, the self-described “lowly saloon keeper,” had a moment of self-flagellation. “I made some apologies: ‘I’m sorry you’re playing this dive,’” Deutsch says.

Carll would have nothing of it. He pointed to the chalkboard on the barroom wall, listing upcoming acts. Excellent musicians, yet musicians on the fringe of only the finest-tuned of music radars. Jon Dee Graham, Dale Watson and Carolyn Wonderland.

“The six people you have listed on this chalkboard as coming are like my best friends,” Deutsch says Carll told him.

“This is the place I want to play, and these are the people I hang out with.”

Indeed. It’s been 15 years since Deutsch opened Abilene Bar & Lounge. He’s celebrating the anniversary on Tuesday, with live music by the acclaimed Americana band Yarn and Rochester’s Big Blue House. Abilene remains a place where musicians — both national and local — want to play. And even hang out.

Deutsch has been so much a part of the Rochester club scene, it is impossible to separate the two. He was hitting the clubs when he was 16, maybe 17 years old, back when the legal drinking age was 18. “Which would make me about 103,” he says.

The relationship became official in 1977, when Deutsch began working at Scorgie’s, the legendary music club here. Today, Scorgie’s is just a set of blank windows on Andrews Street. But four decades ago, it thrived under Don Scorgie, an Irish native who was raised in Rochester.

At first, Deutsch was a bartender. Then he was helping Scorgie book music, locals such as The Dady Brothers and Liam McGee. And when the basement was opened as a stage, Scorgie’s was bringing in Mose Allison, John Lee Hooker, The Ramones, Marianne Faithfull, the Go-Go’s and, every week, the local blues guitarist John Mooney.

Deutsch was there the night Elvis Costello showed up. Costello, who had just finished his show at the Auditorium Theater, was displaying insufferably arrogant behavior. Scorgie, who did not suffer fools gladly, threw him out of the bar.

So Deutsch learned from the best. He was booking shows at many Rochester venues, including the old Jazzberry’s on Monroe Avenue. And then he was selling ads for “Freetime” magazine, a listing of entertainment options in the city. He did that for 23 years, then spent some time taking care of his aging parents.

And then Tara came open. An innocuous house at 153 Liberty Pole Way, in the shadow of the Harro East building. Tara itself dated back to 1850, with a history that darted about like a firefly.

“It had been a rooming house, there’s long been a story that it was a brothel for many years,” Deutsch says. And for many of the more recent years, Tara was a gay nightclub, and the first office space for AIDS Rochester. “It certainly holds an important place in Rochester’s history,” Deutsch says.

“The first time I looked at it, I fell in love with the place.”

Deutsch bought it, and it took him six months to secure a liquor license. But on March 21, 2008, he finally opened the doors to Abilene Bar & Lounge.

Deutsch named it after one of his favorite songs, “Abilene,” by the California folk-rocking singer-songwriter, Dave Alvin. “Dave is probably the artist I adore the most,” Deutsch says.

“I wanted to open a sort of corner saloon with a jukebox and occasionally do some cool music,” he says.

He doesn’t even remember what the first live show was. It was on a stage set up against a wall where patrons had to step cautiously through the band to get to the outside patio.

In time, the stage moved to the back of the club, or the musicians played on the outdoor stage. The jukebox — with Alvin songs such as “Abilene” — went out the door. As did the pool table. The corner saloon had evolved into a full-time live music club.

J.D. McPherson was perhaps Deutsch’s favorite live act. He recalls hanging out before the club had opened one afternoon, watching McPherson rehearse for that night’s show. The punk-edged Sarah Shook is another of his favorites; she’s played the club twice and is back on April 16.

Dave Alvin’s old band, The Blasters, came through. Dave’s brother, Phil, was on lead vocals then. And there was Chip Taylor, who wrote the classics “Wild Thing” and “Angel in the Morning.” As Deutsch says, “You could hear a pin drop when he tells a story, when he sings a song.”

That’s when Abilene isn’t getting rowdy with Dale Watson. “Dale drinks, the audience likes to drink,” Deutsch says. “Great songs, great stories.”

He’s also had the “Abilene on the Road,” shows at the JCC Hart Theatre, The Little Theater, The Record Archive, The Arbor Loft. And all of the good local bands. Deutsch has long been a supporter of the Rochester scene. He mentions Auld Lang Syne, Harmonica Lewinsky.

And he’s welcomed the area’s young talent. Brody Schenk had just turned 14 when he played Abilene for the first time. Now he’s an 18-year-old turning up at many local stages. McKinley James was 13 when he opened at Abilene for Chris Duarte. Now 21 years old, James has just completed a tour of Spain.

The sign for Abilene Bar & Lounge
Max Schulte
The sign outside Abilene.

And Deutsch has all of these great stories…

“I walked into the dressing room one time on the second floor,” Deutsch says, “and Lee Ving from Fear was throwing a television out the window. It happened to be my black and white television, but he was throwing it out the window.”

Even the stories that are not good from the start reveal an unexpected poignancy.

“COVID hit and we were shut down,” he says. “And I would, at times, go to the mailbox when we were still closed, and there would be a card or a letter and a check made out to Abilene. With a note saying ‘Hey, hang in there, we appreciate the place, we feel like you’re doing it safely, we like what goes on there.’ That the music is so important, that the venue is so important, it’s a touching and special sort of feeling, I think.”

There were times when Deutsch thought about expanding beyond his corner saloon. Realtors would call and say, “There’s a space out in Henrietta…”

But, no.

“I want to be downtown,” he says. “The creative energy is in the center of the city and shoots out from there.”

Despite what the entertainment landscape has been through since COVID, Deutsch remains upbeat. He is a cheerleader for the scene. New music awaits discovery. He’s excited about Florence Dore, who plays the club April 1. “I had never heard of her six weeks ago,” he says.

“It’s just an incredible time to hear music.”

Incredible, even though the pandemic hit the local venues hard. Anthology, one of downtown’s biggest clubs, is gone. As are others. But Deutsch points to relatively new outdoor venues such as Lincoln Hill Farms, outside of Canandaigua. And Point of the Bluff Vineyards, “one of the best concert experiences around.”

As for Abilene, he thinks of establishing nights when it is set up as strictly a listening room. “Shows where we’re going to be really insistent that we want attention paid to the artist,” Deutsch says. “Even if 95% are not talking, there’s that 5%.

“We’re not gonna be nice anymore.”

Unless it’s one of those nights when Abilene is “back to rowdy corner saloon.”

Yet even the quiet early afternoons, when Deutsch is stocking the coolers or cleaning a toilet, can yield unexpected rewards. Abilene had been operating for maybe only two years, and the club hadn’t yet opened for the day, when there was a knock at the door. Deutsch answered it.

It was Dave Alvin, who had a show that night at another venue. “He came by to say hello,” Deutsch says. And to see the club that he’d heard had been named after one of his songs.

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.