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Listening Room

by B.A. Nilsson on August 15, 2013


Live at Caffè Lena: Music From America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013

There’s a moment in Hedy West’s 1968 performance of “Shady Grove” when one of the lyrics gets a startlingly loud laugh and she stutters for a moment before continuing to sing. It’s an excellent reminder of the intimate nature of Caffè Lena. You’re packed tight in the L-shaped room if 74 others are there, and the stage is a tiny afterthought. From a performer’s standpoint (and I’ve worked on that stage), you don’t get closer to the audience. And it’s addictive.

It makes sense that Lena Spencer opened her Saratoga Springs caffe (Italian spelling, please) in 1960, a few years before the ’60s really started. Pete Seeger was still blacklisted from television, but an undercurrent of musical rebellion found one of many alternative voices in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. I’ll bet a large percentage of Lena’s performers in those early years had those sounds in their ears.

But don’t take my word for it. A new three-CD tribute set captures the feel of the place and its varied performers from 1968 to the present. If Woody Guthrie never was able to make it to that stage, his legacy shines through. Arlo is there, singing “City of New Orleans” from a 2010 fundraiser at nearby Skidmore; his daughter Sarah Lee is there with husband Johnny Irion in their setting of Woody’s “Folksong,” recorded earlier this year.

And there’s Ramblin’ Jack Elliott with Woody’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” alongside John Herald’s witty (and appropriately half-spoken) tribute, “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.” Caffè Lena and its performers have been around long enough to be recursive and self-reflective.

David Bromberg plays and sings “The Holdup,” which he wrote with George Harrison, and that’s Bromberg alongside Jerry Jeff Walker as the latter sings “Mr. Bojangles.” For every traditional number, like the “Cripple Creek” from Guy Carawan, there’s a Tom Paxton with an original like “Morning Again.” Caffè fixtures like Dave Van Ronk are represented (“Gaslight Rag”) alongside recent-comers like Anais Mitchell (“Wedding Song”).

You’d think that anything recorded after 1968 would sound pretty good, but these are drawn from a variety of sources (I have a vision of cassettes left in a VW too long) and range from the stunning to the fairly acceptable. But they’re well chosen. They all belong here.

You’ll hear Lena introducing some of the performers, and that brings back some of the most poignant memories I have of the place. It’s not like her presence there ever has gone away, but you miss her actual voice.

Then and now, Caffè Lena has been a place whose folkness is informed with eclecticism. It’s about people with something personal and entertaining to share, whether it be through song, recitation or theater. The playlist on this set (47 tracks!) is fittingly wide-ranging—they’ve even snuck in a Noël Coward song—but it’s sequenced with the skill of a seasoned performer. Grab yourself some coffee and pastry when you start to listen. You won’t be inclined to stop.