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 Review archive:  # a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Various Artists - Live At Caffè Lena: Music From America's Legendary [Tompkins Square - 2013]

This is another lavish affair from Tompkins Square: a three cd set with an accompanying, extensive booklet. (I am reviewing a digital version, just to be clear.) As with numerous releases on the label, “Live At Caffe Lena…” is a labour of love; with the curators tracking down hundreds and hundreds of live tapes recorded over many, many years. These (often reel-to-reel) tapes all bore witness to performances at Caffe Lena - the creation and legacy of Lena Spencer.

Lena (the booklet refers to her by her first name, as an indication of how much personal, motherly even, love she put into her venue; and also an acknowledgement of how much she herself was loved) opened the cafe in 1960, in Saratoga Springs, New York. Within a few years, Caffe Lena was established as a warm, intimate venue; becoming an essential stopping point for “up-and-coming troubadours” as well as “rediscovered” folk and blues musicians. Indeed, a young Bob Dylan played his first gig outside of Greenwich Village there. Lena ran the cafe with a careful eye, and ear, until her death in 1989; and since then, various people have done their best to keep her spirit alive in the venue.

Caffe Lena is that important kind of venue: run for all the right reasons, despite financial odds and an encouraging hand to new performers, a warm old friend to more seasoned types. Its the kind of place which every town should have, and this release serves as a fitting testament to it and Lena’s vision. However, the fact of the matter, is that a lot of the music on these cds makes me want to hack at flesh with a rusty knife. Strong words, yes, but from my heart… So, instead of lingering on the more painful elements of the compilation (“quirky” folk songs, innocuous singer-songwriters and that most hated of artistic pursuits: “songs about songs”), I shall cut straight to the more wonderful things to be found on “Live At Caffe Lena…”. The cds are very broadly chronological, and its telling that I found most joy on the first of these - though whether this is due to my tastes in this area, or to shifts in musical quality over the decades, I could not say…

The first cd opens with a stomping banjo rendition of “Cripple Creek”, performed by Guy Carawan with vocal help from the audience. (This is a recurring feature throughout the album - sometimes endearing, sometimes a little cloying. Pete Seeger’s recording has him feeding the audience lines to sing, seconds before the lyrics are needed.) Less frenzied, but no less determined, is the banjo of Mike Seeger (Pete’s half-brother). His “O Death” is a solemn, haunting few minutes; an eerie plea for another year of life. Continuing in this “hill-billy” vein, Smoke Dawson’s “Devil’s Dream” is a agitated chase performed on the fiddle. Recorded in 1968, it builds from an amiable jig into a foot-stomping, speeding climax; with Dawson noisily sawing out a torrent of notes. These appalachian strains are continued, in a much different way, by Jean Ritchie. Her acapella “West Virginia Mine Disaster” is a heart-stopping tale of death and loss, sung out to a silenced room. Its a truly incredible performance; a crass comparison would be Diane Cluck channelling Shirley Collins, but its really very singular. Sung straight and without emotion, Ritchie lets the words alone tell their terrible story. Reaching equal peaks of power, Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon show the youngsters how its done, filling “Holy Spirit” with true yearning and soul. Estes had first performed in 1929, and had actually been presumed dead; but this performance from 1974 proves him to have been anything but. Performed on guitar and harmonica, Estes’ and Nixon’s voices echo and respond to each other; with a true warmth and gravitas.

The second cd begins with the charismatic, if somewhat affected, “Gaslight Rag” by Dave Van Ronk. Armed with a bleakly self-deprecating humour, he growls his way through a song detailing the lot of an unsuccessful  musician. This humour, and self-reflection, is evident elsewhere on the compilation; but only Van Ronk seemingly has the charisma to pull the trick off. Behind the unrestrained vocals, though, there’s a solid bedrock of strong, articulate guitar playing; quite the performer. This rag feel is also to be found in”Ain’t Nobody Home But Me” by Roy Book Binder. This guitar rag, accompanied by colourful - almost jazzy - fiddle, is a lovely little song; but somewhat ruined by audience participation: the half-hearted sounding choir of the audience, reminding me of my grandfather’s dismal “pub sing-a-long” records…

Those pieces that I’ve picked out above, are really the only things to truly excite me here. The rest either washes past me, or very much sticks in my craw. Though I think those more interested in singer-songwriter material, who perhaps recognise some of the names here, will find this an enviable treasure trove of recordings. The sound quality is variable, with perhaps the notable sonic presence of the audience the most obvious “issue”; but this gives the recordings a truly “live” feel, as well as articulating the spirit of Caffe Lena. The booklet says how Lena’s father, an Italian immigrant and restaurateur, stressed “the importance of being a gracious host.” In her own words: “He never treated the people who came to him as mere customers, but more as friends coming to visit”. This obvious love and warmth that Lena Spencer invested in her venue, is evident in the high esteem in which it has been held by patrons and musicians alike.

Rating: 2 out of 5Rating: 2 out of 5Rating: 2 out of 5Rating: 2 out of 5Rating: 2 out of 5

Martin P
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