Caffe Lena Lives, Breathes

How fun to see Caffe Lena celebrate both its heritage and future. This story first appeared in Nippertown and I want everyone to see it.

Caffe Lena will mark its 60 anniversary Thursday with “concerts” in the streets and online. The Caffe at 47 Phila St. in Saratoga Springs deserves this two-part soiree for sheer persistence among the cultural capitols of our region and the folk music world – actually enduring longer since founder Lena Spencer’s 1989 passing than those vivid, often turbulent years she ran it, from 1960 to her death.

The taking-it-to-the-streets, movable feast mobile portion of the celebration puts gypsy jazz group Hot Club of Saratoga, Gospel-soul singer Garland Nelson and indie rockers Let’s Be Leonard aboard flat-bed trucks roaming downtown Saratoga Springs from noon to 1 p.m.  “We’re inviting people to park along the parade route and enjoy the music as the trucks roll by,” said Caffe Executive Director (since Feb.1995) Sarah Craig in a prepared statement. “Decorated cars would be very welcome!”

Fittingly, Bonacio Construction is providing trucks for this musical fleet. Bonacio partnered with the Caffe in its 2016 renovation that provided access for fans with handicapping conditions, improved the kitchen, dressing room and office space and enlarged the listening space from 85 to 110 seats.

Those seats will be empty for the streaming portion of the Caffe’s celebration Thursday, with only the production team of Grammy-winning record producer Joel Moss and video production manager Reese Fulmer present to engineer an online evening program. Broadcast on the Caffè’s YouTube channel and at www.caffelena.orgstarting at 7 p.m. it will combine stories, songs and historic photos exploring each of the Caffe’s six decades of presenting mostly folk music but also jazz, rock, blues, and storytelling. Performers include humorist-singer-baton twirler Christine Lavin (who waited tables at the Caffe before “graduating” to its stage); the Vermont troubadour duo Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen; Chatham blues guitarist Rory Block; former Saratoga resident singer-songwriter Don Armstrong, now an Arizona resident; and Colorado folksinger John Winn, who played the Caffe in its first season. 

While performers come and go, those that last in the business return to the Caffe whenever they can. Jack Landron played there opening night (as Jackie Washington) and many times since, including the Caffe’s 50thanniversary, then most recently in 2013. Famously, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Rosalie Sorrels, Utah Phillips and Don McLean are among its perennials. Some have played fundraisers for the Caffe, some in times so lean that Lena slept there, on a couch too short even for her.

Moss and Fulmer are able to present Thursday’s streaming component of the celebration since the State of New York designated the Caffe as essential on April 20, allowing the launch of “Stay Home Sessions.” During these nearly-nightly, professionally-produced three-camera live-streaming shows, viewers donate online tips to musicians; contributions to date total more than $25,000.

As with the “Stay Home Sessions,” fans viewing Thursday’s streaming sets can contribute to the Caffe, which is launching the Lena Legacy Society as an ongoing endowment.

“We have 60 years behind us and countless decades ahead,” said Craig in the Caffe news release announcing Thurday’s celebrations. “We’ve seen that crisis can come anytime, and an endowment ensures that the music will never die.” 

“Everyone is hungry for happy occasions right now,” said Board President Jim Mastrianni about the celebration, also in the Caffe release. “For Caffè Lena to have not only survived against the odds for sixty years, but to be actually delivering music in the midst of this pandemic, is something Saratoga can be proud of.”

Everyone who’s climbed the Caffe’s steep stairs has stories, even mostly-rock writing me. Artists and fans have loved and fought there, formed groups and split up. A bagpiper once stationed himself behind a romantic rival for a fierce blast on what he assured his target were “war pipes.” 

My own first visit came in high school, with classmates who are still friends and the first woman I was ever crazy about. We didn’t have tickets, it was sold out, but before being ushered gently back out onto Phila Street, I caught a few minutes of mesmerizing blues by Mississippi John Hurt. The deepest and most intense music I’d heard to that point in my music-crazed life, it remained unmatched until I caught Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins at Austin’s Vulcan Gas Company years later.

Years after that, I took my then-girlfriend Jane to see Dave Van Ronk at the Caffe, after hearing the late, great Jackie Alper play his records on her radio show.

After Van Ronk finished his show – gruff, authentic, tuneful and a little raw at times – Jane and I ventured into his dressing room. Van Ronk sat there with Lena herself and with a sidekick; there’s no better word for this guy, a hairy fire-plug with even more beard than Van Ronk. They looked like pirates, ashore to seek trouble. The three were talking, laughing and passing a joint, but the place went quiet when Jane and I walked in. Well, actually when gorgeous dancer Jane walked in, as I became invisible. Van Ronk gawked unashamedly and the sidekick guy leered and nearly drowned on his own saliva. We all five spoke a bit, then Van Ronk said to me, “I want this wench and will offer you ten golden guineas, cash on the barrel head.” I declined and Jane laughed.

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