A FEW MINUTES WITH… Caffe Lena’s Sarah Craig

Sarah Craig
Sarah Craig

By Don Wilcock

“I remember I was going for a walk with my brother once in Greenwich Village,” says Sarah Craig, the Executive Director of Caffe Lena, “and we passed an iconic Greenwich Village folk venue, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. There it is,’ and I thought that was really cool, until I examined it and realized that it basically offered some music, but really what it was was a t-shirt outlet for the once great institution. And I said, ‘I don’t ever want Caffe Lena to go down that road.’ My brother said, ‘There’s a lot of money to be made in it. You’re probably the last person who will hold the line against that.’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna stay forever.’

On Saturday (May 16), the venerable Saratoga Springs coffeehouse Caffe Lena presents a double celebration at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center. It’s the 55th anniversary of America’s longest running coffeehouse and Craig’s 20th anniversary as executive director of the venue that has outlived its Greenwich Village and Harvard Square prototypes as a premier showcase for folk music. Perhaps more important than its tenure, under Craig’s leadership the Caffe has progressed beyond the scope of places like Café Wha and the Bitter End in Greenwich Village and Club 47 in Harvard Square to present an overview of “folk music” today that assures this vaunted venue will be credited with discovering as much new talent in 2015 as it did in 1960.

“I don’t want people to sit here in the audience and say, ‘I’m having a good time because back in 1961 Bob Dylan played here,’” says Craig. “I want them to sit there and say, ‘I can feel the history flow through this place, but this show right now I would drive a thousand miles to see.’ That’s what I want to have happen. I want people to feel they’re part of something that’s very current and alive and growing.”

Lena Spencer loved to recall how she and her then husband came from Boston to Saratoga in 1960 to get rich off the folk boom with a coffeehouse patterned after the Club 47, two blocks from folksinger Tom Rush’s dorm room at Harvard. A decade into this get-rich-quick venture, the husband was gone and Lena was buying ads in my local alternative weekly Kite, for which I never charged her because I knew she couldn’t pay the electric bill.

The times were different then – very different. If the youth revolution was going to take over the country, the men in suits postulated that it was going to foment at places like Caffe Lena, but until that happened, they were going to skim the cream off the top of the underground music that had blossomed in the coffeehouses a decade earlier. Fortunately Lena stood her ground. To her it was all about the music and artists who became her family to the point where she regularly sheltered artists like Rosalie Sorrels and several of her children in her apartment a few blocks from the Caffe. And when I invited her to accompany me to a SPAC show by Bob Dylan, she squealed with delight that she was going to have a date with Don Wilcock to see the icon who had christened the place, and I melted, figuring I could die now and go to heaven. She had that kind of charisma.

Sarah Craig admits the only way she can deal with Lena’s Messianic legacy and the mythic reputation of the establishment is by not over-thinking it. “A lot of it is just instinct. It’s just going on instinct and not trying to over-analyze the whole thing. And I think that I just have an instinctive feel for the place and for how to hold the whole family together, if that makes any sense. And what I’m doing is just trying to make healthy choices and make new friends for the place. It’s that simple, really. I’m a person who is supposed to make other people’s dreams and creativity come alive on the stage. That’s what I do.”

Under Craig’s firm hand, Caffe Lena is still all about the music with signs on each table that politely tell patrons to shut up or they’ll be kicked out. But folk music by her definition is much broader than the traditional fare Lena regularly presented – my favorites back then were Dave Van Ronk and a Minneapolis jugband called the Sorry Muthas.

“Taken in the aggregate, our roster speaks to everything from Shakespeare to Radiohead, and so in order to really appreciate it, the more culturally sophisticated you are, the better,” she explains.

This weekend’s fare is a case study in how she identifies with the artists she books. “These artists are up against a cultural trend and trying to get people to just stop and to dig in and to really feel something emotionally, and that’s what this club is. And people feel that when they sit at these shows that this isn’t just entertainment. It’s something entirely different. It’s like re-aligning your priorities and all the different parts of your mind or your heart and trying to be fully human again.”

Sarah Craig talks about this weekend’s acts with the kind of mothering instinct Lena felt those long decades ago. “The Wiyos came really early when I started doing the booking. I think I first brought them on in 2001, which is when I started doing the booking here, and about a month after they met up with each other and started playing on the streets of New York. They knew they had something special so they burned a CD in the living room, and they kind of audaciously sent it up here to Caffe Lena. And I ridiculously decided to book them to headline some night, some weekend, and so they had no track record, no history, but what I heard on the CD was just wonderful. It was fun, it was good. They do vaudeville type stuff. They’ll take old jazz and blues tunes and old vaudeville tunes, some kind of American hokum type of stuff, and they perform on washboard and guitar and big upright bass and kazoos and so forth. So it’s like super entertaining. It’s a real act, and they did great.”

Beaucoup Blue is a father and son from Philadelphia. They are so sweet and fun. It’s blues-based, but it’s not entirely blues music. I saw them showcasing at Northeast Regional Folk Alliance, and then they went and played the GottaGetGon Festival. That was in May of 2000. Then I had a cancellation, which I absolutely never have for August, like one of the big weekends in August, and I was like, you know, who do I love? I love that father and son duo Beaucoup Blue, and I invited them to come. So they came up and filled in in that spot, and they’ve been a real favorite part of the roster ever since.

Sara Milonovich was one of the very early shows that I ever managed here. She was 11 years old. It was a sold-out show on a Sunday afternoon. She was fiddling with a bunch of old Adirondack musicians who had kind of trained her and brought her up and taught her – sort of introduced her to traditional music, and she’s gone on to do all kinds of things. She’s mostly a sideman session musician now. She records on a lot of people’s albums, but she also has a band called Daisycutter and a duo with Greg Anderson, so she’s coming with the duo, but she’s also celebrating her 20th anniversary. That was 20 years ago that she did that show here, and that was her first big gig.

Jim Gaudet (playing on Saturday with his bluegrass band the Railroad Boys) had had this whole career as a singer-songwriter and then took a bunch of time off to be a dad for a while, and then he came back as this bluegrass guy just a few years ago, and it was just amazing. It was like he was just born for it. I’ve never heard anybody do that kind of high lonesome, crooning singing like Jim does. He’s just been doing great. They’ve been going all around the country, and I just did everything I could to try and help Jim get some gigs early on.

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, well, I have booked all of Arlo Guthrie’s kids. Arlo, of course, is one of those people who got an early foothold in the business here in Caffe Lena and went on to great things. Sarah Lee was probably in her early to mid-20s when she first started back here with Johnny as a duo. So I remember during that first show she was talking about how when she was a baby there was a Caffe Lena poster in her nursery. It was just a place she had always known about and felt connected to, and so there’s something like a little bit of a homecoming when she started playing here. And she and Johnny harmonize like nothing you’ve ever heard. It’s absolutely exquisite.

The Suitcase Junket is a solo act, a one-man band. I had him open for Guy Davis in December, and he did a split-bill with another band in February. So this is just his third appearance with us, and this guy is just an absolute blast, and so talented. He’s got this really elaborate homemade drum kit and guitar that he found in a dumpster, and he totally rehabilitated it. He does this really kind of raunchy, hard-driving guitar with the percussion, and in addition to singing he does overtone singing, like the Tuvan throat singing kind of thing.

“So when the lyrics hit this kind of fevered pitch place, then he breaks into this kind of fevered pitch place. Then he breaks into this ethereal wild kind of overtone singing, and it sounds like a novelty act, but it’s totally not. It’s like having this awesome rootsy rock band all manifested in this one guy right there making it happen in front of you.”

To anyone who thinks the Caffe Lena is a latter day refuge for wannabe hippies, Craig knows different. “I think the challenges (today) are different. I think the enemy looks really different. I think that back in 1966, the enemy was anyone over 30. Now it’s hard to know who the enemy is because what you see on the surface is not really what’s really behind it. It’s very easy for corporations to look like they’re really your best friend.”

WHAT: Raise the Rafters: Caffe Lena’s Anniversary Concert
WHO: The Wiyos, Beaucoup Blue, Sarah Milonovich & Greg Anderson, Jim Gaudet & the Railroad Boys, Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, the Suitcase Junket
WHEN: 7pm Saturday (May 16)
WHERE: Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: $25 in advance; $30 at the door; VIP $45 (includes premium seating and after-party)

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