SCARBOROUGH, Maine — In 1978, just three years after Tom Rowe and brothers Steve and Chuck Romanoff split off from the folk-pop group Devonsquare to form Schooner Fare, the fledgling trio was playing a gig at a tavern in Hampton Beach in New Hampshire.
And who happened to be dining there but Tommy Makem.
“He’s of course the single most significant proponent of Irish music in the world,” recalled Steve Romanoff Wednesday. “We finished our set with ‘Day of the Clipper,’ after which Tommy came over to me and introduced himself. He said to me, ‘That last song, the one about the clipper, is that your song?’ I said, ‘Yes it is,’ and he said, ‘Do you mind if I record it?’ I just about fainted. He and Liam Clancy recorded it before I did.”
Fast forward 34 years. Each Schooner Fare and Devonsquare rose to near legendary status on the international folk scene, and as the two groups prepare for their 34th annual reunion show this Saturday in Scarborough, their members are now the ones looked up to by aspiring folk musicians.
“Very often with our heroes — whether it’s Tom Paxton, or Noel Stookey, or The Limeliters or The Highwaymen — we’ve been very fortunate to have gone on to play with and become friend with the people we idolized when we were cutting our teeth as musicians,” Steve Romanoff said. “Every now and then we kind of get a glimpse of the influence we might have had on other up and coming performers. It’s a great honor to have a positive impact of the next generation of folk singers.
“I get to see that every now and then, when I see a bunch of guys in their 20s and 30s recording one of our songs, or I go on YouTube and punch in the name of one of our songs, like ‘Portland Town,’ and see a bunch of guys in Ireland or in Newfoundland singing our songs,” he said.
Devonsquare in 1988 was signed by the major label Atlantic Records and the band’s debut single “Walking on Ice” — off of an album by the same name — reached the top 20 in nationwide adult contemporary charts, and 1992’s follow-up record “Bye Bye Route 66” likewise garnered critical praise.
Rowe and the Romanoffs, who initially amicably parted ways with their Devonsquare friends to pursue a more folky sound, became well-traveled giants in their somewhat more underground genre. The trio’s original songs so captured the hearty, salty sea feel that has long marked Irish and maritime music, they begun to appear on compilations of traditional songs alongside tunes passed down from centuries before.
“Just a year after Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy recorded ‘Day of the Clipper,’ it appeared on an anthology in Ireland of famous Irish songs, with an authorship of ‘anonymous,’” Steve Romanoff said. “I saw another album from a French group who recorded one of our songs and listed it as ‘traditional,’ ‘public domain.’”
But the Romanoff brothers don’t waste a lot of time pursuing royalties, Steve said.
Over the years, the members of Schooner Fare and Devonsquare experienced highs and lows — among the lowest points were the deaths of friends and bandmates such as Rowe and Devonsquare founding members Jeff Rice and Herb Ludwig — but they’ve always reconvened for their annual reunion show.
The concert raises money for the Jack McPhillips Memorial Fund, named for a frequent attendee of the two groups’ early performances who the musicians later befriended. Saturday’s show, for which doors open at 6:30 p.m., will be held for the first time at The Landing at Pine Point in Scarborough.
“As far as the reunion goes, I think we were just committed to having a reunion every year,” Steve Romanoff said. “The primary members of Devonsquare and Schooner Fare, people who have sung together for over 40 years, look at the event as a wonderful opportunity to get back together and have some fun. The fact that we do it in the memory of a mutual friend and raise money for a nonprofit organization makes it all the more satisfying for us.”