To settle down with a cup of freshly-made coffee and lose myself in good music for an hour or so has always been one of life’s little pleasures for me. In recent years there’s been an exponential increase in the number of high street coffee shops which will happily sell you a giant mug of an unidentifiable blend and let you fight for a seat in a too-small room while some equally unidentifiable middle-of-the-road CD belts out from some tiny, tinny speakers, but to my mind, this really isn’t the best way to indulge myself. To be honest, I’ve yet to find a coffee shop in London that really works for me: some of the independent ones come pretty close but, in the back of my mind, the ideal experience would be to wander along to somewhere like New York’s Caffè Lena for a damn fine cup of coffee and some equally fine live acoustic music.
While that experience might not be a practical option, armed with a copy of Live At Caffè Lena: Music From America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013 and a bag of something freshly-ground, coffee/music fans like me can now at least recreate something of the atmosphere of the legendary, longest-running American coffee house.
The 47-track, 3CD compilation is an important document of the venue’s musical history compiled from tapes made night after night, show after show, over the last 46 years. And while it would as comfortably sit in the “field recordings” section of your collection as it would in “folk music”, this isn’t some dry, academic archive that you’ll play once and then forget about forever. The (presumably audience) recordings from this intimate venue are of exceptionally good quality and the performances give a real sense of being up close and personal with a range of living, breathing musicians and singers that will keep you coming back for another top-up.
While the PR notes are keen to flag up the inclusion of unreleased performances by such luminaries as Pete Seeger (Somos El Barco (We Are the Boat), 1985), Kate McGarrigle (with Roma Baran on Caffè Lena, 1972), Anais Mitchell (Wedding Song, 2013), Tom Paxton (Morning Again, 1968) and even Arlo Guthrie (City of New Orleans, 2010), there’s a wealth of less well-known names to be heard here, many of whom deserve a much wider audience. Songs that caught my ear were Hedy West’s banjo-driven bittersweet tale of lost love (Shady Grove, 1968); Jean Ritchie West’s spellbinding a capella rendition of the self-explanatory titled Virginia Mine Disaster (1969); the Greenbriar Boys rousing bluegrass Hit Parade of Love (1968); Barbara Dane’s country blues (Mama Yancey’s Advice / Love With a Feeling 1968); Roy Book Binder’s ragtime blues audience participation number (Ain’t Nobody Home But Me 1974) and Bill Morrissey’s sad story of two lovers’ farewell over some delicate fingerpicking (The Last Day Of The Furlough 1990).
All in all, Live At Caffè Lena: Music From America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013 is a thoughtfully sequenced compilation which manages to distil a wide range of emotions and musical styles into a low-key but never lowbrow collection which captivates by virtue of its simple humanity. It’s imbued with a sense of timelessness: a very 21st century record that sounds like it should be playing through a battered old valve radio in an Edward Hopper painting – Nighthawks, perhaps? And apart, perhaps, from someone to make you that damn fine cup of coffee, that’s just about everything you could ask for in an album.
Review by: Helen Gregory
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Main image: Bob Dylan, Suze Rotolo, Lena Spencer at Caffe Lena, 1961
Live At Caffe Lena : Music From America’s Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013 is released as a 3-CD Box Set via Tompkin Square on September 24, 2013.
Order it here