“It’s so intimate; people are right in your face; it’s a living room kind of a feeling; very personal,” says Tom Paxton, reminiscing about his 14 previous gigs at Caffè Lena. (That’s right, 14.) He’s calling from a hotel room in Kansas City, MO, where he’s planning to attend the annual Folk Alliance International conference. Soon after, he’ll be heading to Saratoga Springs for his staggering 15th performance at Caffè Lena on February 22. “I like to have people close if that’s possible. I like to see their faces, react to their reactions; a symbiosis forms back and forth, back and forth. Most of it’s unconscious, but it’s a very great shared experience and in a small place like that, you get that in spades.”
The club’s original owner, Lena Spencer, recruited Paxton to play at the famed venue back in 1960, after seeing him perform in Greenwich Village. At the time, Paxton was 23 years old and the Caffè had only been open for three weeks. “She heard me at either the Gaslight or the Commons, and invited me up, and I said of course!” Paxton says. “I was just a raw beginner and happy for the chance to get up and perform. I was down for that.” He laughs when I ask him how much he was paid for the gig. “I’m sure it was bus fare and $25 or something; it wasn’t much,” says Paxton.
As it has been for many artists, Caffè Lena was a springboard for a tremendously brilliant and important career as a songwriter. Paxton went on to become a major name in folk music, playing solo shows at New York City behemoths like Carnegie Hall and Town Hall; and Festival Hall in London, to name a few. Music luminaries such as Bob Dylan, John Denver and Willie Nelson have all covered his songs. And among a number of other awards he’s received from everyone from the Folk Alliance to the British House of Commons, Paxton also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. He’s very modest about all the various accolades. “I think if you live long enough, they just give them to you,” he says.
Paxton says he’s especially looking forward to his trip to Saratoga: “I always loved Saratoga Springs. It’s a beautiful, beautiful town. Very historic—the battlefield and all that. It’s a great place to visit.” And even after a lifetime of performances, Paxton still sees something special in Caffè Lena: “I love the memory of Lena Spencer and all she meant, not just to Saratoga—but to folk music, period,” he says. “It’s an honor to come back up and sing in Lena’s Caffè.”