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.

– 30 –

Live (Sorta): Mark Emanation Duo @ Caffe Lena 5/6/2020

This story first appeared in Nippertown, my first story there in months, and I’m pleased to be back, again. Let me explain. The late, great Greg Haymes (“Sergeant Blotto” in Albany rock-comedy band Blotto) and his partner in life and creativity Sara Ayers published Nippertown for a decade until Greg passed last year. I wrote and photographed stories there when they didn’t fit the Gazette style or format and felt proud doing so: It was the hippest, best-curated view of music and other arts in the Albany area. It retains that mantle since Sara handed the keys to publisher Jim Gilbert late last year. A big shout-out to Jim for opening this door.

I miss the stairs, and much else about Caffe Lena – but we don’t have to miss the music entirely. 

Blues great Mississippi John Hurt was playing there, first time I climbed those stairs; and blues were on the menu when I went up the virtual stairs Wednesday as the Mark Emanation duo (with guitarist Tom Dolan) played to three cameras in a house empty but for host Sarah Craig, stage tech Ian Hamelin and camera-video/broadcast sound tech Joel Moss.

The venerable (60 years) Saratoga Springs coffeehouse presents live music nearly every night in its Stay Home Sessions, both live streams and archived shows; plus instructional sessions.

Accessing Wednesday’s show was easy via Youtube at, Choosing what virtual show to watch via Mac from my Schenectady home-office desk, less so. Shows streaming Wednesday included the peripatetic Erin Harkes from hereabouts, also Nashvillians I’ve met while visiting my brother Jim Hoke there: Joe Pisapia at my cellist-nephew Austin Hoke’s poker-dinner parties, John England leading the hardest-hitting hard country band on the neon-splashed lower Broadway bar strip from Roberts Western Wear. But I digress.

The blues seemed right for me Wednesday, though, in memory of both Mississippi John Hurt from my first Caffe visit and Emanation’s long association with Ernie Williams, whose ghost climbed the stairs with him and Dolan.

Emanation, hereafter MA, started by placing himself in the Caffe’s history, citing past shows there including benefits that burnish the bluesman’s long reputation with Williams, Folding Sky, current crew Soul Sky and almost uncounted others.

MA and TD have made music together since their early teens in Watervliet schools; and it showed Wednesday. At their best, they flowed smooth and easy. Handoffs and endings sometimes felt ragged, though, yet that seemed OK in these days when practicing seems problematic. They know what their best stuff is, so after warming up on two songs with more generic than specific messages, they hit an early peak by getting sadly real in “Watervliet Waltz.” Here they mourned change as loss, noting globalism as a zero-sum game our Rust-Belt towns are losing. 

The production was sharp, MA’s vocals and both guitars coming through clear. Three cameras caught the action (though both played seated), pivoting on the beat to catch TD’s solo in “What Am I Gonna Do,” then right back to MA for his break, for example. MA aimed his voice south in songs set there including the plaintive post-Katrina “Rain Keep Fallin’ Down,” pleading “Can we make it” in words that seem sadly apt today. Mourning marked the next number, too: “He Don’t Live Here Any More,” dedicated to departed fellow bluesman Tom Healey; but in this number and others with local settings, MA sang in a distinctly northeastern, Springsteen-echoing, Rust-Belt howl.

The mood shifted to anger in CSN&Y’s “Ohio,” intro’ed with MA’s recollection of protests announced in placards inserted in newspapers he delivered as an 8thgrader appalled by the Kent State National Guard murders. They nailed it, and held their mood of modulated outrage through “I Remember Bobby Sands” about the Irish hunger-strike hero. While TD riffed most of the hot solos – his break in “”Frozen” might have melted a glacier – MA’s coda in “Ohio” and fiery lead in “”Sands” sparkled just as bright. So did his slide solo driving the stoic shuffle “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Working Day.”

Late in the show, they riffled back through the Ernie Williams songbook, MA explaining how he and his band mates transmuted Williams’ road-trip stories and recollections into songs they’d write for their elder-leader to sing. MA’s humility in noting they’d had to grow into those songs spotlighted in powerful poignancy how the blues flow from generation to generation. 

Their best songs followed me down the Caffe’s virtual stairs as they wound down, reaped the applause from their audience of three; so did CSN&Y’s “Ohio,” written in a time as troubled as our own. I remembered, too, how Graham Nash told me in an interview how proud he was of “Ohio” – although it followed and eclipsed his own idyllic “Teach Your Children Well.” Nash recalled “Ohio” pushed “Teach” off the singles chart, but suggested it deserved to, that its message was that important. 

We don’t know what important angry, compassionate or even funny messages our  singers will sing about these times. But we can expect to hear many of them at the top of the stairs of Caffe Lena.

Live chat and a virtual tip jar to support the performers and the Caffe are available during streams.