Various Artists: Live at Caffé Lena: Music from America’s Legendary Coffeehouse 1967-2013

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Various Artists
Live at Caffé Lena: Music from America’s Legendary Coffeehouse 1967-2013
(Tomkins Square)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The title of this lovingly compiled three disc set tells you much of what you need to know. Caffé Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York, derived from the name of its founder Lena Spencer, is a small but legendary folk landmark, hosting hundreds of aspiring and established names through the decades. Some were recorded, many on primitive devices, and 47 of those appear on this set.

It’s a virtual who’s-who of traditional folk, singer-songwriter music and some blues, with recognizable names such as Tom Paxton, Arlo Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Jerry Jeff Walker  sharing tracks with the more obscure likes of Jacqui and Bridie, Smoke Dawson, Barbara Dane, and Billy Faier. As you might expect, this is a primarily unplugged affair with acoustic guitars, banjos, pianos and fiddles the key instruments, although not always in a solo presentation. Spencer—who passed away in 1989-is very much a part of the package, especially when her voice is heard introducing some of the artists, all of whom are represented by a particularly energetic, emotional or crowd pleasing song.

A 31 page booklet tells the whole story with rare photos, copious notes and blurbs about each tune. Beyond the music which is itself a mini-encyclopedia of folk, the audio on these tracks is beautifully remastered, some from sources 40 years old. That helps make Walker’s 1968 rendition of “Mr. Bojangles” sound as alive as Mary Gauthier’s somber “I Drink” from 2013. It’s a terrific set whose historical significance is as important as the pure enjoyment the listener gets by hearing familiar and obscure folkies caught live and spirited in their natural habitat.