Pretty much every Saratogian knows that Bob Dylan performed at Caffè Lena back in the early ’60s, just as he was beginning to kick off his legendary folk career. But Bob wasn’t the only one.
According to Sarah Craig, Executive Director of Caffè Lena, most of the now famous musicians who have performed at the club weren’t famous when they first started performing there. “This was an important building block in their career and in building their skills, and that’s what Caffè Lena is really for,” she explains. “The shows are always great regardless of whether that person becomes a household name later down the line. That’s just a matter of lightning striking or not.”
Here’s a list of eight artists you probably didn’t know performed at Caffè Lena before hitting it big.
One of the first true “indie” stars, DiFranco first appeared at Caffè Lena in 1991, a year after founding her independent record label, Righteous Babe. A Buffalo native, DiFranco would go on to release 20 albums (including Little Plastic Castle, which charted in 1998); score minor hits with “32 Flavors” via the cover version recorded by ’90s rocker Alana Davis; land a Grammy award (as well as eight nominations); perform at Madison Square Garden; and even star on an episode of King of the Hill.
This may be a case of a reversal of fortunes. G. Love performed solo at Caffè Lena in March of ’96, two years after he and his band, Special Sauce, became college radio darlings with a pair of catchy numbers, “Cold Beverage” and “Baby’s Got Sauce.” G. Love would also wind up on the H.O.R.D.E. Festival tour, founded by Princeton, New Jersey–based jam band Blues Traveler (the tour features everyone from Neil Young and Ben Folds Five to the Barenaked Ladies). After a trio of charting albums in the aughts, the band sort of dropped off the face of the Earth, resurfacing, of all places, in a 2005 Coke Zero commercial. So in a sense, Caffè Lena landed the band at its prime.
Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody Guthrie, has been dropping by Caffè Lena for the past 50 years (his last appearance was in 2010). His first performance was in ’66, a year before the 18-minute, 34-second talking blues song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” sent the album it was on up to No. 17 on the Billboard charts. Although the song itself never charted (for obvious reasons; it was way too long for radio), it has become a Thanksgiving Day staple for modern radio stations. Fun fact: The “Alice” in the song is a real person.
The Freedom Singers may not ring a bell, but they might just be the single most important artist on this list (Bob Dylan included). The a capella gospel quartet toured with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”), a powerful social organization that fought Jim Crow segregation laws during the Civil Rights era. They performed at Caffè Lena in February 1963, about six months before they sang alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the fabled March on Washington.
Starting in 1960, Paxton performed at Caffè Lena 14 times over the course of 35 years. If you’re unfamiliar with his name, you won’t be with the laundry list of artists who’ve covered his tunes, which include Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, John Denver, Willie Nelson and other folk/country royalty. By ’62, Paxton would be performing alongside major folksingers like Dylan and Dave Van Ronk in Greenwich Village; and about 50 years later, in 2009, he would receive a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Long before she was a 14-time Grammy Award winning vocalist, Emmylou Harris performed at Caffè Lena in 1968. (That was a year before she recorded her first album, and nine before she won her first Grammy.) Harris, who’s since been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, has recorded 26 studio albums; sold 5.5 million records in the US alone; and recorded with a who’s-who of rock royalty, including Dylan, Neil Young, Roy Orbison, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Patty Griffin and Gram Parsons.
If you buy into Saratoga folklore, this will be old hat: One night, following a gig at Caffè Lena, McLean stumbled into the Tin ‘n’ Lint bar on Caroline Street and penned his No. 1 single “American Pie” in one of the booths. (They have a plaque to prove it.) While McLean did play Caffè Lena regularly throughout the 1960s, a 2011 article from The New York Times seemed to confirm that McLean didn’t write the mega-hit at the T&L, but rather over two separate visits to Cold Spring, NY, and Philadelphia. At least that’s what McLean “remembered.” But just because McLean said it’s so, doesn’t mean it is. Either way, the world is a much better place for that song, which first dropped in 1971.
Last but not least, local hero Sawyer Fredericks was only 14 years old when he first performed at Caffè Lena in November of 2013. He went on to become the youngest contestant to ever win The Voice in 2015 (alongside Danielle Bradbery, who was also 16 when she won) and set iTunes sales records when 10 of his singles reached the iTunes Top 10, and 14 of his singles charted in the Top 200 before the series ended.