Bob Dylan moved from Minnesota to New York City early in his career to be closer to the folk music scene.
His first-ever performance outside New York City was in 1961 at Caffé Lena, which was already beginning to become a hub for folk artists.
Fifty-four years later, Caffé Lena remains a key destination for independent folk artists and fans of the music to come out and watch. On Saturday, Caffé Lena, along with Hattie’s, Peabody’s Sports Bar & Grill, Park Side Eatery, Ben & Jerry’s, Cole’s Woodwind Shop and Sushi Thai Garden, held their first Here Comes The Sun Block Party, with music, food, and arts and crafts.
Caffé Lena was founded by Lena Spencer in 1960 as a place where music was the main focus. When Spencer died in 1989, after scores of famous songwriters like Bob Dylan had played there, Caffé Lena was converted into a nonprofit, and it received part of the proceeds from Saturday’s block party.
George Ward had just graduated from Union College when the coffeehouse opened. He played there with his wife, Vaughn, and his Irish band, The Broken String Band, and now is one of the 10 board members of Caffé Lena, Inc.
He described Spencer, especially after opening the place, as energetic and welcoming. She would stand at the top of the stairs to enter and greet people when they would come in.
“Lena would’ve loved this,” he said of the block party.
Sarah Craig has been executive director of Caffé Lena since 1995 and is also in charge of booking performers and managing the performances. Dianne Winter, associate director since 2013, is in charge of fundraising and finances. They both are fans of folk music and understand how times have changed and how it’s important to keep evolving. But they also realize the reason Caffé Lena had remained relevant has been its intimate nature. It’s a place where a person can play acoustic music, even jazz or blues, and expect the audience’s undivided attention.
“I look for people who have a personality, who can pull people into the experience,” Craig said.
For Winter, it’s about the story told in a song and the artist being able to connect with the audience. The block party is a way for Caffé Lena to be involved with its neighbors and to help each other.
Jon Frederick handed his 3-year-old daughter, Mikaela, a piece of chalk so she could draw on the street. Other children had already drawn rockets, Pokéballs from the “Pokémon” series and even an octopus on the asphalt.
Frederick, his wife, Jill, and his daughter had driven from Vermont for the party because they were aware of Caffé Lena and its storied history.
“It’s the reputation of the Caffé that drew us over,” he said.
Lily Vamvanij is co-owner with her husband, Sam Tongtawea, of Sushi Thai Garden, across from Caffé Lena. At the block party, they sold sushi rolls, Thai iced tea, pad Thai and spring rolls. Vamvaniji was glad to be donating part of their proceeds to Caffé Lena and to be a part of the block party.
“In Thai tradition, when we do good things together, it helps everyone,” she said.
And because of the block party, she can also speak with and meet some of the other nearby businesses, which is harder to do when they’re just working inside the restaurant on a normal day.
As Mike Poulopoulos, an artist from Schenectady, played with his band, Rebel Darling, some in the crowd tapped their feet. Others continue to walk around, from one table to the next.
Joel Lilley of Saratoga Springs and his 7-year old son, Hazen, watched. Hazen, who was making maracas out of rice and beans and empty plastic bottles, stopped what he was doing and just stared, transfixed.
According to his father, Hazen already has a guitar and a drum set.