More than 57 years after Saratoga’s Caffé Lena opened for business, the now world-famous acoustic music venue is celebrating its first birthday all over again.
With the help of a long list of donors, including a philanthropic partnership with Bonacio Construction, Inc, the nonprofit Caffé Lena was transformed from timeworn loft space to state-of-the-art venue and community center.
The renovations, started in 2016 and completed over the course of 2017, stabilized the late-Victorian building, increased occupancy, made the second floor performance space handicap-accessible, and created a home for the venue for decades to come.
Officials said since reopening 12 months ago, Caffé Lena has seen a surge of new life. Now open nearly every night, the schedule includes concerts, open mics, theatrical performances, musical workshops, community forums, children’s concerts, and more.
“Similar to when the Caffé first opened in 1960, our rebirth has come at a time when people are wanting to hear songs and poems and stories of substance,” said Executive Director Sarah Craig. “There’s a hunger for this unique space where all sorts of people feel comfortable sharing their creativity and trying new things.”
Now equipped with modern sound and lights, along with two dozen more seats and a well-equipped kitchen and dressing room, the venue’s roster is including concert hall acts such as Peter Yarrow, Sawyer Fredericks, The Gibson Brothers, Tom Paxton, Darlingside and Amy Helm. Helm, now curator of her father Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble, as well as a band leader in her own right, headlined Lena’s anniversary celebration.
“We chose Amy for our 1st anniversary because she perfectly represents the role we want to play in the music world. Honoring the legacy while creating fresh art for today and tomorrow,” said marketing and house manager Carolyn Shapiro.
A monthly Bright New Music Series introduces audiences to bands rising fast in the national music scene. It is named for Kevin Bright, former executive producer of hit TV series “Friends,” and his wife, Greenfield native Claudia Wilsey Bright. Longtime fans of acoustic music, the Brights first came to Caffé Lena in the 1970s. When they heard the venue was at risk of closure in 2016, they stepped forward with a donation of $300,000.
“Caffè Lena,” Bright said, “is holy ground. We don’t have many places like it anymore, and what Lena can do for the local community and the community of folk music is wonderful. We need to keep it alive and moving forward.”
Other expansions include a jazz series curated by Brubeck Brothers’ pianist Chuck Lamb, an Immigrant Stories night produced by the Saratoga Immigration Coalition, a Bluegrass Jam, a community conversation series, and the organization is looking to launch a lunch-time listening hour early in 2018.
Over the summer Caffé Lena and Saratoga Performing Arts Center collaborated on a series of one-day folk festivals on SPAC’s gazebo stage. This partnership will continue in 2018 with a series of world music concerts at Caffé Lena in the winter and spring, followed by a reprise of the outdoor series at SPAC in the warmer months.
Universal Preservation Hall, the former Methodist church on Washington Street that has begun its own transformation into a year-round concert hall, has temporarily moved its popular Rochmon Record Club to Caffé Lena, drawing crowds one Tuesday a month to discuss and hear classic rock albums.
“Our founder, Lena Spencer, would have been 95 on January 4. She started something here at Caffé Lena that went longer and farther than she ever could have dreamed. I believe that fifty years from now Caffé Lena will still be here as an incubator of creativity and friendships. That’s the gift our community was given, and it’s the gift we’re passing forward,” said Craig.
Caffè Lena is widely recognized as the oldest, continuously operating folk music venue in the United States. Music, poetry, storytelling and open mics are held nearly every night of the week. For a complete schedule, visit www.caffelena.org or call 518-583-0022.