An extraordinary collection of live folk performances
Three hours north of Greenwich Village, Caffe Lena proved as important to the folk revival as Gerde’s FolkCity or the Bitter End. Opened in 1960 by Bill and Lena Spencer, the coffee house has been run as a not-for-profit organization since Lena Spencer’s passing in 1989; its fifty-three year run is thought to be the longest for a U.S. coffee house. But more important than the business is the broad array of artists – famous, soon-to-be-famous and never-famous – who trod upon the venue’s stage. Caffe Lena played host to acoustic singer-songwriters, bluegrass bands, Irish fiddlers, gospel singers, delta bluesmen and the many others who fit under the umbrella of “folk music.”
In 2002, the Caffe Lena History Project began exploring and assessing the archive of documentation left by the cafe’s founder. This grew into parallel projects that investigated photographic and recorded materials, including a hundred reels of live recordings made in the 1960s and 70s, and cassettes from later decades. What’s particularly extraordinary about the recorded material (aside from the restoration’s ability to weave five decades of disparate tape sources into a surprisingly cohesive album) is its passive documentation of live performance. These performances were aimed entirely at the audience (whose applause and laughter are integral elements of the proceedings) rather than the tape recorder (or, in modern parlance, a smartphone YouTube posting). The performances were meant to live on in memory and influence, rather than recorded posterity, and that lack of permanence fosters an ephemeral intimacy with the audience.
Though he’d released two indie albums in the mid-90s, Richard Buckner arrived in most listeners’ ears with his 1997 major label debut, Devotion + Doubt. His voice and delivery were unlike just about anyone who’d come before. His early music found cover under the Americana umbrella, but even then the steel, fiddle and vocal edgings that signaled country were balanced by strong elements of folk, pop, rock and jazz. His weary vocals played as hushed confessions, and his impressionistic lyrics were filled with fragments, shards really, of his recently ended marriage. For all but the few who’d latched on to him earlier, it was a breathtaking introduction.
His two albums with MCA led to another indie stint and a 2004 landing at Merge. A string of misfortunes (including a failed soundtrack opportunity, an inadvertent brush with the law and technical difficulties) led to a five-year gap between 2006′s Meadow and 2011′s Our Blood. But now, with comparative ease, he’s produced an album backed with ambient electronic textures, tape loops and layered vocals. Buckner’s trilled notes can suggest Randy Travis or George Jones, but the atmospheric backgrounds, such as on “When You Tell Me How It Is,” frame his voice similarly to Roxy Music-era Bryan Ferry.
If you didn’t know better, but you knew enough to have heard both Greg Trooper and Bob Delevante, you might swear they are brothers from different mothers. Their voices can sound so similar as to really complicate the actual brotherhood of Bob and Mike Delevante (a/k/a The Delevantes). Both Trooper and Delevante trade in country-rock, and each brings twang to the roots rock of their shared native New Jersey. Trooper adds a helping of folk and soul to the equation, giving him a range that encompasses the roots rock of Willie Nile, the heart of Arthur Alexander, Willy DeVille and the Hacienda Brothers, the emotional perception of Richard Thompson, and the character-driven stories of Nashville.
The opening “All the Way to Amsterdam” is a perfect example of Trooper’s songwriting talent, juxtaposing a drunken father with a child’s dream of escape. The song’s heart-rending hope is renewed in the quiet of night and dashed in the light of morning; but that same light illuminates the hope fostered by the ice of Amsterdam’s canals. The melody draws its own tears, but it’s the tone of Trooper’s voice (an instrument Steve Earle has said he covets), both concerned and stalwart, that gives the song its emotional punch. The country-soul of “Everything’s a Miracle” offers up a perfect combination of steel (Larry Campbell), organ (Oli Rockberger) and soulful guitar (Larry Campbell again!) to back a vocal whose heartbroken misery stems from an inability to accept happiness.
The album moves effortlessly between country, country-rock, country-soul and folk, with the richness of Trooper’s voice pairing easily with Lucy Wainwright Roche’s backing vocal on the acoustic “The Land of No Forgiveness.” Trooper’s songs aren’t as squalid as the album’s pulp cover art might suggest, nor is there a deep streak of noir’s irredeemable fatalism in his stories. Instead, he writes of troubled people, peels away at the layers of their problems and studies whether their obstacles are external or self-imposed. Some of his protagonists blame the world for their own shortcomings, but others internalize outside turmoil as if it were of their own making.
So, beginning in late January 2014, I’ll be traveling throughout Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona with my acoustic guitar, hollering & strumming into thin air to audiences weary of the intimate setting of the rock bar-ambienced dins of out-of-time cocktail-shaker-maracas, bachelorette parties and bar-side conversations about “who’s-that-guy-onstage-again?” and “Ten-bucks-to-get-in-and-it’s-just-a-bunch-of-dudes-shushing-me-when-I-try-and-tell-you-about-my-new-hilarious-fantasy-football-team-name!”. In between the shows, I’ll also be working on my latest collection of run-on sentences (containing parenthesis so I can cram in more unnecessarily-tangented details) featuring nouns disguised as adjectives. I like using determiners as well, but my therapist thinks that it adds to my issues (with over-explaining).
For more information on hosting a Richard Buckner show, visit Undertow.
Art Decade, a Boston quartet fronted by singer-songwriter and orchestrator Ben Talmi, will release their second full length in SeptemberOctober January 2014. Think of ELO’s orchestral rock brought to modern pop by Keane or Blind Pilot, with production by Sufjan Stevens and the Explorer’s Club, and a hint of Elliot Smith’s vocal tone. Check out the pre-release “No One’s Waiting” below, and check back for a full album review in January.
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