Cafe Lena review

By David Greenberger

Spencer Bohren Cafe Lena, Saratoga Springs, Sept. 20

Mixing, gospel, folk and blues, Spencer Bohren has a similar sensibility to Geoff Muldaur. Equally affecting as a singer and guitarist, his vocals are resonant and believable. Last Saturday’s show at Caffe Lena found him alternating between electric slide guitar, an acoustic Gibson and a banjo. Adept at each, his playing and singing were intermingled in the best possible ways.

Performing since the sixties and now based in New Orleans, the Wyoming native spent the better part of the eighties touring the country in an Airstream trailer with his wife and children, towed by their ‘55 Chevy Bel Air. Not surprisingly, Bohren’s got a troubadour’s eye for detail, taking notice of the towns he passed through and the people he continues to meet. His two sets mixed originals with worthy covers. The former included his “Night Is Fallin’,” which sounds like the classic it deserves to become. The latter ranged from Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees” to Fred Neil’s “Blues on the Ceiling,” a couple by Hank Williams (”Long Gone Lonesome Blues” and “I’m So Lonesome I could Cry”) and the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations.”

Bohren’s first set ended with one of numerous stories he told with a hypnotic ease. This one recounted a road trip he’d made which took him past the infamous Parchman Farm prison. This led into an acapella blues he learned from a tape a friend at the Smithsonian supplied him with, and which he was listening to when he happened upon the facility. It was a searing number originally recorded by Alan Lomax at Parchman decades earlier. With his eyes closed and his voice moving from a whisper to a wail, Bohren captured his own personal connection to the song as well as the dignity in the performance that inspired him.

In fact, Bohren’s storytelling had a life of its own. While most stories prefaced specific songs, one did not and it reveled in a life of its own. This tale of a woman named Dawn Petty from Bird City, Nebraska had the masterful strokes and unforced confidence of a natural storyteller. Free of the hyperbole of a raconteur and nuanced with the subtlety of music, Dawn Petty came to life and wanders around in *my* memory now.