Kelly O

Three years ago, the Comet Tavern was simply one of Seattle's most venerable dive bars, a holdover from the city's grungy glory days. Since then, it's slowly and rather miraculously turned into ground zero for a whole new generation of local rock 'n' rollers.

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Welcome to Mamma Casserole's living room.

In real life, Mamma Casserole is Michelle Smith, a 41-year-old social worker, a Boston native, a lifelong music fan who moved to Seattle a decade ago, and, for the past three or so years, the person bringing live music to the Comet. She's a punk-rock Clark Kent—a part-time superhero who works a day job—though her vivaciousness makes her far from anonymous. On a recent visit to Portland rock club Slabtown, she was treated like visiting royalty by members of the city's music community. And she forges a connection with the homeless vets she works with that's equally personable.

"I have a 78 percent success rate getting people into housing and better living situations," she beams. "That's unheard of. And I think it's because I do it in a way that's really compassionate and caring. It's the same thing I do at the Comet. I don't think about the money; I'm just thinking about what's the right thing to do."

Smith's passion and compassion—not to mention a personality that can spark an entire room—have paid off. The Comet has blossomed from ugly duckling into successful venue in a surprisingly short amount of time. It played host to the first area show by Austin's Black Angels and has been a fertile developing ground for local up and comers such as Feral Children, Das Llamas, and the Whore Moans.

"She's giving me a run for my money," laughs Kris K, who's taken over local bookings down the street at Chop Suey. "For some reason, she can get bands to play Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. It blows my mind. She's competing in the market and doing an awesome job that's making my job harder."

Bumbershoot's Chris Porter has known Smith for close to two decades. His earliest—and fondest—memory of Smith is walking into Nuggets, the Boston record shop where she was a buyer, and seeing her giggling and dancing on the counter to the Monkees' "Star Collector."

"She's very much the spirit and heart of the Comet," he says. "She has a huge love of music and musicians. She probably should have been doing this before."

Smith might not be dancing on the Comet's counter, but her love of music hasn't diminished since those days. There's a good possibility that you'll find her front and center at many of the shows she books.

"I love these bands," she gushes. "I love them. Have you ever seen another booking agent dancing in front of the band that they booked? I do that! These are the shows I booked for me."

Her personal taste has clearly tapped a nerve with local audiences and bands, who are drawn to the Comet's unassuming, almost house-party charm and a booker who laughingly refers to herself as a "childless mother."

"In the beginning, it was really difficult to book, because no one knew we were doing music at the capacity we were doing it, because it was just one-off stuff," she says. "But now, I'm getting 40 e-mails a day. It's crazy. I think most of it is quality and I want to keep it that way with really good bands playing, but I'll give an unknown band a chance."

"I have to credit Chris [Dasef] at the Comet," she continues, citing the relatively new owner of the bar. "He gives me complete autonomy to do whatever I want to do. I couldn't work under any situation where I was questioned about what I do."

That hands-off approach from her boss is countered by Smith's hands-on approach to booking. She's collaborative and open with the bands she books when putting bills together; touring bands frequently end up at "Mamma Camp"—post-show gatherings at her apartment featuring impromptu and educational DJ sets from Mamma Casserole's vast record collection.

To say Smith lives and breathes music is no exaggeration. Her nickname is a self-created takeoff on the Mamas and the Papas' Mama Cass, a nod to the sexy rock 'n' roll biker mama archetype, and a sort of punk-rock version of Cockney rhyming slang ("rock 'n' roll" to "casserole.")

She's got great stories—the time she sassed off to her hero Joe Strummer while hungoverly manning the cassette counter at Nuggets (turns out he'd seen her band the night before); winning a bet with Smiths' bassist Andy Rourke about whether or not the song they'd heard while in the Jack in the Box drive-through was Sweet or not (it was); and writing songs about her crush on John Doe with Stuart Murdoch from Belle & Sebastian while prototyping a rock 'n' roll bed and breakfast in San Diego (true story).

"I'm a fan of music who happens to be booking a club," she says. "It's my passion. I'm on MySpace constantly, and blogs, and I'm searching out bands all the time. I'll go to a band's page and check out their friends and listen to them. So I might know a band before they even e-mail me. To me, music is about more than the music—it's the event and the socialization and the connections. It's all of it."

That includes giving back to the community. Smith started booking shows at the Comet as fundraisers for local political group No Vote Left Behind, and for the past two years has booked Noise for the Needy, a benefit festival that takes place at various venues throughout town, this year in early June.

"It's not a hobby; it's a lifestyle," she laughs. "It's not like this is going to change. And the more I accept that and resign myself to the fact that this is it, why not? Why can't it be? We're making the rules."

And hanging out in Mamma Casserole's living room while we do. recommended

editor@thestranger.com