For the last several months, Caffe Lena has hosted a series of concerts in celebration of its 50 years of continuous operation in the second-floor converted loft on Phila Street in Saratoga Springs. The gala fundraiser on Friday, May 21 – a concert featuring Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur – was the kick-off of the big anniversary weekend and yet another breakthrough for the Caffe in both a musical and, well, a fun, sense.
Being both an historic venue and a dry venue, the Caffe often has an earnest and respectful atmosphere: quiet conversation, coffee and tea, healthy snacks, maybe a “sinful” chocolate chip cookie.
In contrast, the Friday fundraiser was launched with an abundant reception in the adjacent theater. There was fine wine, boutique beer and plentiful finger food and designer pizza from local fine dining establishments. The tables in the Caffé were covered with crisp white linen tablecloths. Smartly dressed people were setting up and serving. About 45 minutes into it, the Caffe took on the mood and volume of a wedding reception – this was FUN! A local theater critic had red wine spilled on his white sport jacket – and he DIDN’T CARE! What’s going on here?
Well, the patrons were finally herded into their seats with the promise that there would be more beverages and desserts during the intermission. After a masterful introduction by the other theater critic in the house, Kweskin and Muldaur took the stage, sitting almost knee-to-knee – their first time playing together at the Caffe. Jug band aficionados and folkies in general know them well as icons of the ’60s Cambridge folk scene and the heart and soul (respectively) of the legendary Jim Kweskin Jug Band. And watching the ease and grace with which they played, it was nearly impossible to believe that only recently had they ended a 35-year hiatus of not performing together.
For the entire night, they alternated on lead vocal with Kweskin holding things together with rock-solid, relaxed guitar finger-picking and Muldaur playing equally tasteful, but slightly more embellished accompaniment on guitar and sometimes banjo. Their song bag was all “old” stuff. Some going back the the Kweskin Jug Band days: “Blues in the Bottle,” “Papa’s on the Housetop,” “Fishing Blues.” Some American classics: “Frankie and Albert,” “Boll Weevil Blues.” And, of course, a tip o’ the hat to such revered musical forefathers as Mississippi John Hurt (“Chicken”) and Doc Boggs (“Mistreated Mama”).
All were performed in a relaxed manner with a comfortable interweaving of their parts on each song that reflected both their long history together and their collective love and compatible interpretations of the material.
Back to the party. The intermission featured more from the bottomless wine and beer offerings and an array of tasty baked desserts – including a chocolate cake that vied with the performers to be the star of the evening. The festive mood, further enhanced by the fantastic music of the first show, flew a little higher still.
Before the start of the second show, there was a short ceremony to unveil a bronze bust of Lena Spencer that was an exact replica of a plaster bust from the 60’s that had fallen into disrepair. The classical rendering of the young Lena captured her heart and optimism for the Caffe and her spirit that has inspired those that have managed the Caffe for the last 20 years and infused it with their own special spirit, vision and love.
OK. Finally, back for more of the Jim and Geoff show. More great stuff, although a slight detour of style when they did the classic mountain song “The Cuckoo.” Here Kweskin sort of crooned the tune, as opposed to exclaiming lyrics in the key of the song, which is really his strong suit. But it was all good.
And they just might be the only folks in the 50-year history to have ever graced that fabled stage with both an African song sung in Zulu (“Guabi Guabi”) and a Rodgers and Hart show tune (“You Took Advantage of Me”).
A great show, great hospitality and, of course, a great venue – it was another perfect night at the Caffe. A little different for sure, but something Sarah Craig and the Caffe crew might consider doing again for future special occasions?
Review by Paul Jossman, aka Bowtie
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
JIM KWESKIN & GEOFF MULDAUR SET LIST
Blues in the Bottle
He’s a Jelly Roll Baker
Sweet to Mama
You Took Advantage of Me
Turn Your Money Green
Down on Penny’s Farm
I Can’t See Your Face (Geoff solo)
Frankie and Albert
Boll Weevil Blues
Papa’s On the Housetop
Just a Little While to Stay Here