CD Review - Caffe Lena: Historic Stages, Vol. I
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, July 7, 2005

Various Artists

Caffe Lena Historic Stages, Vol. I


Such is the fame of Saratoga’s Caffe Lena that when I taught guitar there one summer, I often found myself welcoming tourists who had dropped by to see the stage where Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk, Arlo Guthrie and other folk greats (as well as lesser-known pickers such as myself) have performed. Showing them the place was an honor.

With full disclosure made, I can say the Caffe has released a well-chosen compilation of 16 live performances by several of the venue’s marquee artists recorded there and at other locations from 1972 to 2000. Historic Stages, Vol. I represents what concertgoers at the landmark coffeehouse have been hearing since 1960: engaging contemporary acoustic songs, offerings from many folk traditions, and fine playing. As the Caffe’s only previous anthology, the 1972 Welcome to Caffe Lena (Biograph), is out of print, the present CD is long overdue.

The disc opens with two tracks from the 1972 LP. Lena Spencer, the club’s owner and impresario (she died in 1989 at age 66), introduces veteran songster and multi-instrumentalist Michael Cooney to the audience, after which Cooney launches into a reworked version of “Hannah” by Chris Bouchillion titled “Lena Won’t You Open Your Door.” Cooney’s voice strains on one or two high notes, but his bluesy fingerstyle guitar chops and showmanship are on the money as he hams it up for an audibly delighted crowd. U. Utah Phillips prefaces the next song, the whimsical “Daddy, What’s a Train,” with the sort of short, relaxed monologue that is a staple of coffeehouse performers but rarely makes its way onto records.

Other gems abound. Robin and Linda Williams and their Fine Group deliver a stunning a cappella rendition of the traditional gospel quartet number “If You Love Me, Feed My Sheep,” seamlessly pulling off ascending half-step key changes. Bluegrass banjo ace Tony Trischka picks a sparkling original solo composition, “Garlic and Sapphires,” traveling well beyond the usual harmonic borders of the 5-string. And humorist Christine Lavin sends up a hilarious ditty, "Harrison Ford," about a fleeting encounter she had with the actor and his wife in a Wyoming restaurant.

The mood gets serious soon thereafter, though. Patty Larkin’s “Metal Drums” is a taut protest song about some children poisoned by industrial pollution after playing in a toxic waste site in Massachusetts that is perhaps the high point of the record. And Gamble Rogers, who died heroically in 1991 attempting to rescue a drowning man in rough surf in Florida, is remembered with a pair of songs: “That’s All,” an artfully fingerpicked Merle Travis tune is from what was to be his last concert. “Song for Gamble,” written and performed by Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen, honors Rogers and his sacrifice.

Lastly, Pete Seeger, joined onstage at the nearby Canfield Casino in 1985 by a chorus of hundreds of Lena’s friends and well-wishers, salutes the folk maven on her 25 years of presenting music with the serene “Somos El Barco (We Are the Boat).”

Historic Stages is a worthy encomium to the Caffe and its troubadours, and the good souls there who have kept Lena’s legacy alive.

Visit the Caffe Lena website

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          ©2005 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.

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