Review by Kirsten Ferguson
Photographs by Joseph Deuel
Just a week earlier, Boston-based songwriter Doug Kwartler was holding down a spot at the Saratoga Springs Post Office, competing for the attention of the many New Year’s Eve revelers who thronged the streets during the city’s First Night celebration.
So the intimate confines of Caffé Lena soon after marked an improvement – presumably for Kwartler, a New York-native who mentioned onstage that he has friends in the area and always wanted to play the storied coffee house – but also for members of the modest crowd who came out on a Sunday night to hear him for a second time.The close-quartered, alcohol-absent Caffé Lena setting encourages rapt attention, so Kwartler – backed by upright bassist Rusty Chandler, drummer Ben Dicke and Son Volt guitarist Mark Spencer – had plenty of room to explain the origins of his rootsy folk-rock tunes, which ranged from heartfelt and personal to socially conscious and topical.
The pensive, shuffling “Silver Meteor” was inspired by a train trip the flight-adverse Kwartler took down south with his pregnant wife and by the people they met. The jaunty, juke-joint-jumpin’ “Banjo Eyes” took its title from a compliment Kwartler’s young daughter received from a stranger outside a Long Island pizza joint. The physical travails of getting older led to “Bad Knee,” and “Peace for the Heart He Gave” was a reverent tribute to John Vincent Power, a World War II hero from Worchester.
Kwartler may currently be best known for his anti-Scott Walker, worker-solidarity tune, “Hang on Wisconsin,” which has a video that’s captured thousands of views on YouTube. That song – fueled by Kwartler’s harmonica and Spencer’s masterful lap steel guitar – sounded great at Lena’s. “I might be by on Wednesday for the Occupy Night,” Kwartler announced at the end of the show, demonstrating his protest-folk bona fides by closing with a cover of Woody Guthrie’s rambling-man ballad, “I Ain’t Got No Home.”