Earlier this year, I received a request from the publisher of Amtrak’s NY by Rail magazine to recommend an “off the beaten path” tourist destination that they could include in the Saratoga section of their upcoming issue. They didn’t want the track, or Yaddo, or any restaurants. Something different. Something unique to Saratoga. My friends at Saratoga.com put the question out to Facebook, “Where would you recommend a visitor to the area go that is not your typical tourist attraction?” Of the 75-100 great responses we received (and many will be future blog posts here), one name was mentioned repeatedly. Caffe Lena.
Caffe Lena, located on Phila Street, is the oldest continuously running coffeehouse in the country, and with good reason. As quoted from their website, “It is an internationally renowned cultural center and an American treasure. Opened in 1960, the cafe has helped to launch many of America’s best-loved songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Ani DiFranco and many more.”
There is not one aspect of this venue that is not unusual, quirky and filled with wonderful history. From the moment you step through the door, you are surrounded by photographs, paintings, and graffiti-covered walls which include a staircase adorned with random musical and historical depictions, and even bathroom walls that are literally covered with hand-written messages from prior guests and performers.
I met with Sarah Craig, the Director of Caffe Lena, to get her perspective on this national landmark. We met on a quiet Tuesday afternoon; the stage was empty, as were the tables…in anticipation of the evening’s performance. Caffe Lena is tiny; a perfect intimate setting in which to sit back and immerse yourself in the talent on the stage.
In speaking to Sarah, it is impossible not to get caught up in her passion for the music and for this venue in particular. She clearly loves what she does, and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation.
“I think a lot of people think of us as an artifact or relic, it’s something that is about its history, and they may not realize that the music scene that we are a part of right now is really cooking. It is VERY hot. And there are just more wonderful and perfect-for-this-stage bands out there than I can possibly fit in the schedule, and what ends up happening is that we are doing more and more mid-week shows. We have sold out probably somewhere between 80-90% of our shows since the beginning of December. It is really hot.”
I admit I have not attended a performance in a few years, and clearly that situation will now be remedied, but I asked Sarah what specific kinds of music were popular right now. “What seems to be really popular right now is what they call Americana music, which is kind of folk music. It’s like the new name for folk music, and I would say that the band that everybody knows is Mumford & Sons. Everybody knows their music, but there are a lot of bands using that kind of instrumentation and bringing in the singer/songwriter element, but kind of leaning toward a sort of blue-grassy instrumentation to back it up. So, it is a real neat blending of that energy of the rock world and the traditional instrumentation of the folk world, and then just kind of the creativity of the singer/songwriter. And it is just this wonderful melding that seems to really speak to people right now.”
Sarah was kind enough to invite both myself and a guest (artist Mary Frances Millet who hand painted the gorgeous watercolor scarf pictured above, which included a beautiful depiction of Lena Spencer herself!) to see a performance the following Sunday evening. We happily accepted this generous invitation, and were very, VERY privileged to see Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys perform on March 22.
This was, unquestionably, the best performance I have seen in a very, very long time. I am in no way a music critic, but I know what I like, and I liked this very much. Lindsay Lou’s voice covered multiple genres of music…she sang blues, bluegrass, folk and even jazz. As my friend commented, “she has the voice of an angel.” The other members of the band were equally talented, each singing and trading instruments (absolutely fantastic music), and even throwing in some comedy. It was a thoroughly enjoyable show.
And the fact that we were sitting about ten feet from the stage made it that much better. Everyone around us was mesmerized by the show, and the enthusiastic applause at the end of the performance brought them out for an encore, which was greeted with even GREATER applause. No one was disappointed.
Sarah wrapped up our conversation by saying, “I always say you can’t shortcut your way into what this place has. There is no way that you could open up a venue and have it be an authentic 60’s coffeehouse. And this is actually, at this point, the only one that has been in continuous operation that is left. It is a national treasure. There is a national network of venues that share our artists, but there is only one Caffe Lena, and only one stage where all of the famous moments in music history have happened.”
Do yourselves a favor. If you have never been there, or if it has been a while, check out one of the upcoming performances. You won’t regret it.