Review - Caffe Lena's 50th Anniversary Bash
Golden Days - Caffe
Lena 50th Anniversary Concert
Arlo Guthrie, Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group
Skidmore College, May 22
Although many folk coffeehouses sprang up in America during the late 1950s and early 1960s, most were lucky to last a dozen years. Club 47 in Harvard Square ran from 1958 to 1963; and Greenwich Village’s Gaslight, also launched in 1958, folded in 1971. But as The New York Times noted in a May 18 story, Saratoga’s famed Caffe Lena, opened by Bill and Lena Spencer in 1960, has endured for 50 years.
Capping the venue’s golden anniversary weekend was a concert by folk’s favorite son Arlo Guthrie at Skidmore’s new Arthur Zankel Music Center. Its 600-seat theater, built with funds from a $46 million bequest to the institution, is an aural and visual treasure offering crystalline acoustics and an expansive view of the campus greenery through a high glass-paneled wall behind the stage. In this setting, Guthrie, himself a Lena alumnus, serenaded a sold-out house with his signature songs and tickled them with droll anecdotes and reminiscences of everything from seeing Leadbelly when Arlo was age 2 to playing at Woodstock, dosed (and perhaps even higher than I was watching him in the crowd).
Guthrie performed his delectable solo set on 6- and 12-string guitars,
piano and rack-mounted harmonica. His playing was flawless throughout;
his singing nasal but reliable. Best of all, though, were the often
hilarious spiels with which the master raconteur introduced his songs.
For instance, as a prelude to “St. James Infirmary,” he milked every drop of humor from his tale of purchasing an old MGA sports car from Pete Seeger. Seeger, somehow thinking he was in England, took the young Guthrie out for a spin on the left side of the road and was oblivious to an oncoming truck as he explained the features under the dashboard to a terrified Guthrie. Seeger swerved out the way just in time.
Before “Coming into Los Angeles,” he told of his set at Woodstock, where, thinking he’d be performing on Saturday, he took psychedelics on Friday. Informed that he would be on next, an alarmed Guthrie found himself, as he described it, blending with the molecular structure of the stage’s floorboards as he stepped forward to play.
Opening were Robin and Linda Williams and their Fine Group, a singing Virginia couple augmented by electric bass, fiddle and mandolin. With Linda on guitar and banjo and Robin on guitar and harmonica, they served up a tight bluegrassy/old-timey mix of originals and covers. Linda Williams’ strong, clear voice is among the best in the folk field.
Happy 50th, Caffe Lena.
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