Live at Caffè Lena: Music From America’s
Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013
Tompkins Square 2967
As one of the seminal folk clubs of the 1960s folk revival, Caffè Lena has few parallels. Founded in 1960 by Lena Spencer with her husband Bill in a college town in upstate New Your, it was the perfect warm and intimate cauldron for all that was to come over the coming years. And with Lena’s broad and generous heart guiding the venue through the swirl of the revival and for decades after, it retained that purity of spirit like none other. It’s no accident that the Caffé is one of the very few of these iconic venues to continue through to the present, retaining Lena’s quixotic spirit through to this day almost two decades after Lena’s passing.
The key to the club’s longevity and power was on two fronts, intricately interwoven and unwavering. Artists playing the club were Lena’s “children,” loved equally and unshakably. She always believed profoundly in the artists presented at the club, regardless of any successes or struggles outside the club’s walls – and the artists who played there knew that, felt that and projected that in their performances. And Lena, so smart, always made the audiences feel like they were an integral part of any show as well … that they were “home,” too, when they were in the audience. This made for hundreds, thousands, of electrifying shows at the Caffé … and this three-CD compilation from Tompkins Square serves both as testament to the best of the spirit of that music and community, and as a wonderful transport through the decades of the club with almost 60 tracks of previous unreleased performances from a terrific assortment of artists who graced Lena’s stage.
Each of the three discs focuses on a different period in the venues chronology, so it’s not surprising that the first disc holds the most profound nostalgia with some really terrific performances from artists that made it past the first almost decade of the revival. (As the title indicates, the recordings here represent 1967 forward.) It’s wonderful to hear such strong performances from Mike Seeger, Jean Ritchie, Guy Carawan, Hedy West, The Greenbriar Boys, Pat Sky, Billy Faier, Michael Cooney, and others, sounding SO great. Hats off to co-producer Steve Rosenthal and the rest of the restoration team for the clean and upfront sound on the overwhelming majority of these tracks – it really feels like you’re sitting in the club back in the day!
Disc two covers the next decade well, featuring performances from the likes of Dave Van Ronk, Barbara Dane, Ramblin’ Jack, and Happy and Artie Traum, all with at-their-peak performances that showcase both musical prowess and the the energy (and often harmonies) of the Caffé audiences. There’s a Jerry Jeff Walker performance of “Mr. Bojangles” that I’m pretty sure includes backup from David Bromberg who was the sideman in 1968, followed a couple tracks later by Bromberg as a front man inspiring the audience to provide him with vocal help for his “The Holdup.” Great stuff. I was a bit disappointed by the fantastic and sorely missed John Herald’s track – a slow spoken-through read on his usually lightening-read tribute to Ramblin’ Jack. And, honestly, I just don’t get the point of including off-site performances by Arlo Guthrie (“City of New Orleans”) and Pete Seeger (“Somos El Barco”) that miss the charm of the club-recorded tracks (and aren’t particularly unique performances) … but others’ mileage may vary.
Disc three digs deepest toward the current crop of mostly songwriters that form the overwhelming majority of the club scene today, but includes some great performances from the likes of Bill Morrissey in his prime (“The Last Day of the Furlough”), Bill Staines (“Sweet Wyoming Home”) and other terrific tracks from Anais Mitchell, Grey Brown, Patty Larkin, Rory Block and Chris Smither. The set closes with the only (to my knowledge) reissued track: Lena, herself, on the charming early pop song “Dear Little Cafe” which was also included on the long out-of-print Biograph LP from the late 1970s that also paid tribute to the Caffé.
The CD box includes a booklet that includes a number of essays that give a nice glimpse into the spirit and history of the club, and a wide range of photos showing the room and the artists for a healthy dose of nostalgia. I do wish that there was better annotations for the tracks, crediting of musicians and such, but I could track down a lot of info out there on the web, and this is really supposed to be about the music right?
While there were a few tracks that didn’t click for me, I’ve got to say that I found this compilation really fulfilling and am highly recommending it to anyone who loves great music played at a great venue. And isn’t that pretty much anyone reading reviews at this site?
— Mark D. Moss