SARATOGA SPRINGS — Caffe Lena, located at 47 Phila St., is quaint. It’s unassuming, sitting just east of the intersection of Phila and Putnam streets. Walking by it, you would probably miss it if you didn’t know what you were looking for. It shares a building with Hattie’s and Sweet Mimi’s Cafe, both visible from different viewpoints of the site.
Caffe Lena boasts a revered reputation. Its roots in folk trace back to 1960, when Lena Spencer opened the venue.
Since March, when COVID-19 shuttered much of the state’s entertainment networks down, Caffe Lena has been dark to the public. However, the little business with a big heart is staying strong during the pandemic.
The venue has been live streaming shows for about six years. It started with a camera in the back of the venue, eventually working its way up to full-scale production. With a totally dedicated setup, Caffe Lena’s live streams have been strong since before it was forced to rely on them solely. Vivian Nesbitt, coordinator of Caffe Lena’s School of Music, and Sarah Craig, Caffe Lena’s executive director, are optimistic about the venue’s future despite the ongoing bottleneck of restrictions the coronavirus puts venues in.
“I think we were pretty prepared to take a punch like this because we had that dedicated setup for the live streams and business was doing so well,” Craig said. “It definitely helped that we received grants that helped us keep the staff full time, so we could create the best experience possible through these streamed events.”
Caffe Lena is relying predominantly on its tip jar, an optional feature that it includes with each show. Because each live stream is free to view, Craig said many people are tipping based on what they feel the show was worth, as opposed to just the flat price of a ticket; one tipper donated $100, something the grassroots organization still can’t believe.
Nesbitt is seeing significant interest in the music school, despite it being virtual for the time being. Caffe Lena’s classes are unique because it recruits Grammy-winning and renowned musicians to teach the classes. Students are learning from the best and reminded that even the most prolific musicians in folk history were once beginners. The pandemic has forced touring musicians to hunker down, giving them ample time to turn their talents elsewhere.
“Anytime I’ve reached out to these incredible musicians and asked them to teach a class for Caffe Lena, they’ve always responded with ‘tell me more’,” Nesbitt said. “We have such a far reach and deep respect within the industry. Our reputation creates a wide ripple effect.”
Nesbitt added Bruce Molsky, a beloved clawhammer banjo and fiddle player, volunteered to teach immediately upon learning of the classes. Nesbitt and the team have also recruited icons like blues guitarist Guy Davis, guitarist Marcy Marxer, songwriter Dan Navarro and clawhammer banjoist Allison DeGroot, amongst others.
“What makes this so successful is we have a faculty of working musicians, as opposed to people whose sole purpose is teaching,” Craig said. “All of these musicians have years of experience on stage and can actually apply these lessons to their own careers. There are different tricks they teach our students that help them understand how different shows and songs work.”
Nesbitt and Craig said people all over the world are now tuning into Caffe Lena. Nesbitt added there are a couple of students from out of state. In the live streams, there are people from Germany and France. Of the classes so far offered, 12 kids have taken more than one. Many people are using the time in quarantine to master a new instrument, something that can unite a community, even through a screen.
“We’re not trying to create the next star here,” Craig concluded. “We are sharing the gift of music — showing how it’s a way of life — and sharing the cultural history of this music. It’s about making friends and nurturing those bonds. We want people to participate and have a good time.”
To learn more, visit https://www.caffelena.org/.