SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – This is a style of music much favored by Caffé Lena founder, the late Lena Nargi Spencer: Pure acoustic music from the steeped in modern folk’s archetypes, plenty of genuine social commentary, with a nod to country or mountain music and little or no gadgetry.
Both the featured and opening acts at Caffé Lena fit that description to a “T.” It was also a crossroads as the duo of longtime Caffé performer Danny Gotham (now of Chapel Hill, NC) and new performing partner Jon Shain of Durham, NC, was preceded onstage by the new, young, Nashville duo, Granville Automatic.
The latter performs in a basic, straight-ahead manner: Vanessa Olivarez sings with a strong, clear, bell-like voice over the strummed acoustic guitar of Elizabeth Elkins.
In “The Groundskeeper,” she adopts a persona desperately seeking some sanity in the world regarding land use and preservation of some fragment of something soulful.
“Blood and Gold” describes the diminishing chance for survival for the wild Mustang. Its refrain, “hold on now ’til the West is won,” packs an ironic punch that underscores the kind of hypocrisy that underlies the American Way: We proclaim that we stand for freedom and yet we seem determined to capture or destroy whatever appears to be free. Even our symbols of freedom are endangered, hunted, or corralled.
The duo’s stage presence reflects serenity, humility, poise, confidence and sincerity. They are performing with purpose and they pretty much glow with that.
Danny Gotham has always been somewhat of a legend to me, spoken of in local musical circles and heard on the Raquette River Rounders recordings, but I’d never actually seen a show.
So it was a pair of fresh ears that I brought. The experience was like a family and friends gathering with guitars and mandolins on a porch: Intimate, informal, good-humored and spontaneous. It was about trading songs and stories. It was about covers sounding fresh and personal and new songs taken in easily.
It takes very skillful players and a bit of nerve to perform songs never played together in front of an audience in a listening room and Gotham/Shain did just that … brilliantly. That is why there are musicians and there are musicians’ musicians and these are musicians’ musicians. They also performed some songs they had played together before and one would’ve been hard-pressed to tell which was which – a plus on BOTH sides of that coin.
Covering Woody Guthrie’s “Plane Crash at Los Gatos,” Shane contributed lots of slide-ups on the guitar with a lot of bending notes as Gotham song in a sort of low-key but not necessarily laconic way. His voice is a bit lower than vintage John Prine, just to give you an idea, but not so low as to be called, “gravelly.”
The duo also covered Guthrie’s “Billy the Kid,” in a stoutly rhythmic manner with foot tapping, emphasizing instrumentals with Gotham having applied a cap to an octave mandolin, creating, he noted, an erstwhile mandola and Shain on the guitar as throughout the performance. This was a first-time joint performance.
Some folks might liken Shain’s style to that of Steve Forbert, which was reflected on Shain’s own, “Love is a Lucky Thing.”
With Gotham rolling along on rhythm guitar, Shain brought country fingerpicking to a blues tune as he complained, “I ain’t got no lovin’.” There was a lot of bounce to their blues playing which reflects country and folk influences.
Shain’s tunes such as “Getaway Car” and “Straight” are songs especially appreciated by musicians as well as the general audience. They were a great listen.
Gotham’s mandolin led the medley of his own lovely “Silver Years Waltz”/”Sheba River.” There’s a sort of clock ticking in the rhythm of the former, whereas the latter has a certain front porch, Civil War-era feel to it, which is a quite sought-after sound around here, given the stunning success of locals Jay Ungar and Molly Mason with that same sort of sound.
Gotham pulled out a Hawaiian “Oahu” slide guitar for one tune, “Concha Concha,” which describes a sort of music. Fun to play I think, and again, that was the front porch tone of this show.
There were some curious yet familiar, however “Long Gone” moments in boogie-woogie … which tapped a bit from the “Batman Theme” and “Day Tripper,” too. I should mention a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” Again, a certain casual quality.
And there were some devastating lyrics during the performance … “everything slips through his cold fingers,” from Gotham. “I could never get used to anything new,” from Shain … think about that one for a moment.