Since the spring of 1960, Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY, has been welcoming folk singers and musicians onto its stage. Among them have been folks as variant as Tom Paxton and John Gorka, Robin and Linda Williams, Anais Mitchell, Greg Brown, Arlo Guthrie, and Tift Merritt. It’s the longest continuously running coffee house in the country, and crowds continue to gather there to take in the music. What’s more, it’s now a not-for-profit establishment run entirely by volunteers.
Albums recorded live at Caffe Lena have been released before, including the 1972 vinyl release Welcome to Caffe Lena, featuring 13 performances form Patrick Sky, Utah (Bruce) Phillips, Rosalie Sorrels, and others. But, to celebrate a landmark 53 years in business, the folks at the Caffe have decided to drop a stellar three-disc collection spanning most of its existence.
Live at Caffe Lena: Music from America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013 plays out like a brief aural history of the evolution of contemporary American folk music. There are work songs and tragic ballads, love songs, the blues, mythological adaptations, gospel songs, tunes about farming and big mainstream hits like “Cats in the Cradle” and “Mr. Bojangles.”
It’s hard to imagine a better offering in folk music than an album that jumps from Anais Mitchell on her Hadestown tour, to Mike Seeger singing “O Death,” David Amram crooning along with his mighty banjo, and Arlo Guthrie delivering his classic “City of New Orleans.”
Thankfully, the crowd is as present in these recordings as are the performers. Great folk songs are, after all, an open conversation. The occasional giggles or gasped breaths of the audience – not to mention their rapt attention – is the constant on this collection, and it only adds to the experience of the album. It makes great sense to hear Dave Van Ronk with an audience chuckling at his surprising one-liners, for example; to hear the crowd sing along with the inimitable Guy Carawan.
Also included is the relevant between-song banter (Jean Ritchie’s brief intro to “West Virginia Mine Disaster”) and Lena Spencer introductions, where it made sense to do so. As a result, the listener can feel like they’re right in the room along with each of these legendary performers, some of whom have long since passed away, for what feels almost like the greatest open mic night of all time.