New collection skims the cream of Caffè Lena’s rich musical history


Live At Caffè Lena: Music From America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013 is slated for release on Sept. 24.

A review of Live At Caffè Lena: Music From America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013, with buying and streaming links after the jump

I’ve always meant to visit the legendary Caffè Lena, the tiny coffeehouse at 47 Phila Street in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Devonsquare, the sweet-harmonizing folk-rock trio, first piqued my curiosity about Lena and Bill Spencer’s cafe (or caffè, as they dubbed it, using two f’s) with their song “Caffè Lena” on the  1987 album Walking on Ice.

Caffè Lena was a place of mythical proportions to me then. For one reason or another, I never found myself in Saratoga Springs.

After all, I live close to The Turning Point in Piermont, N.Y., a music cafe that is, while 16 years younger than Caffè Lena, has a similar mission and musical profile.

And then there was the Towne Crier in Pawling, N.Y.,  from 1972 until closing in June with plans to reopen soon in Beacon. That gave me a backup option just a bit farther afield than The Turning Point.

So  I never got myself motivated sufficiently to make the trek to Saratoga Springs.

I should have known I was missing out. And now the Tompkins Square record label has  shoved into my face some very real evidence of exactly how much I’ve missed.

The exterior of Caffè Lena. (Facebook)

The exterior of Caffè Lena. (Facebook)

While The Turning Point, which has featured many of the same artists as Caffè Lena, doesn’t record shows as far as I know, its Saratoga Springs cousin, which was founded in 1960, apparently took great pains to document its programs.

Live At Caffè Lena: Music From America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013 is scheduled for release Sept. 24. But I’ve had the pleasure of listening to a copy for a few weeks now. It’s a 47-track collection of pure delight for anybody who loves the music that came of age in America’s coffeehouses in the early 1960s and has continued to grow ever since.

Stream three tracks from the album here:

While the audio quality varies with the age of the track — there’s a bit of fuzz on the earliest recordings, while more recent performances are crystal clear — every track is full of heart and soul.

Tompkins Square (a San Francisco-based label despite its New York City-sounding name) has harvested great tracks from the Caffè Lena archives. The collection includes the dearly departed — like a rollicking Dave Van Ronk, Bill Morrissey, Kate McGarrigle and even Lena Spencer herself — much-loved survivors — Pete Seeger, Paul Geremia, Tom Chapin — and even some newer artists — Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, Mary Gauthier, Sean Rowe and Tift Merritt.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, there’s no trace on this collection of one of Caffè Lena’s best-known alumni, Bob Dylan.

In October, a book about the club’s history will be released:

Caffè Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse (powerHouse Books) brings more than 200 never before seen, evocative images and stories to the public. Early 1960s photographs of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and modern-day images of Rufus Wainwright and Patty Larkin blend with rare memorabilia and an oral history derived from more than 100 original interviews of artists who have graced Caffè Lena’s stage over the decades, including Ani DiFranco, Utah Phillips, Dave Van Ronk, Spalding Gray, and other luminaries of the folk, blues, jazz, and theater worlds.


Live At Caffè Lena: Music From America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013, a 3-CD set, is available to preorder at for $34. It will also be available direct from Tompkins Square and most music retailers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s