Various Artists – Live at Caffe Lena
An extraordinary collection of live folk performances
Three hours north of Greenwich Village, Caffe Lena proved as important to the folk revival as Gerde’s Folk City or the Bitter End. Opened in 1960 by Bill and Lena Spencer, the coffee house has been run as a not-for-profit organization since Lena Spencer’s passing in 1989; its fifty-three year run is thought to be the longest for a U.S. coffee house. But more important than the business is the broad array of artists – famous, soon-to-be-famous and never-famous – who trod upon the venue’s stage. Caffe Lena played host to acoustic singer-songwriters, bluegrass bands, Irish fiddlers, gospel singers, delta bluesmen and the many others who fit under the umbrella of “folk music.”
In 2002, the Caffe Lena History Project began exploring and assessing the archive of documentation left by the cafe’s founder. This grew into parallel projects that investigated photographic and recorded materials, including a hundred reels of live recordings made in the 1960s and 70s, and cassettes from later decades. What’s particularly extraordinary about the recorded material (aside from the restoration’s ability to weave five decades of disparate tape sources into a surprisingly cohesive album) is its passive documentation of live performance. These performances were aimed entirely at the audience (whose applause and laughter are integral elements of the proceedings) rather than the tape recorder (or, in modern parlance, a smartphone YouTube posting). The performances were meant to live on in memory and influence, rather than recorded posterity, and that lack of permanence fosters an ephemeral intimacy with the audience.
Tompkins Square’s three-disc box set cherry picks forty-seven previously unreleased performances from the available tapes, and adds previously unpublished period photographs. The artist roll features many famous names of the 1960s, including Tom Paxton, Utah Phillips, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Arlo Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, but also leading lights of later decades and artists whose renown never matched the quality of their work. Caffe Lena was a launching point for both fame and art, and at times, the intertwining of the two. Missing from this set (either because tapes or rights weren’t available) are two of the cafe’s most famous patrons, Bob Dylan and Don McLean, but their absence can’t dim the bright lights presented here. This is a treasure for folk fans, and hopefully only the leading edge of additional archival releases.