Bill Staines Tribute Concert Unites Artists and Fans at Caffe Lena

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Sometimes a musician brings so many special ties to Nippertown that it feels like he’s local. He becomes an honorary local through this friendships and connections to the area. Singer-songwriter Bill Staines was such an artist, and as so local musicians gathered at Caffe Lena on Saturday, January 22, to celebrate his life and legacy through story and song.

On our way to the venue, Jim asked me if I liked Bill Staines. I wasn’t sure if I knew his music, frankly, because I typically don’t recall specific artists as much as specific songs. So he put Staines on the radio, and immediately I knew I not only knew of Staines, but I loved him. I recalled singing his songs with my father, and could hear his voice singing with me although my father was long deceased. I was immediately excited to have a night to listen to Staines with others joining in the sing a long, and became impatient to get to Saratoga.

Bill Staines was a Boston-born musician who first performed at Caffe Lena in 1968 and visited the listening room twice a year between then and his last performance on September 17, 2021. As such, the room was filled with those whose lives he touched: musicians, songwriters, and friends.

Chris Shaw, our Nippertown Adirondack musician and food expert, greeted us with a warm hug as we walked into Caffe Lena for the event. The Master of Ceremonies for the night, Shaw was a good friend and mentee of Staines, and he cleverly wove stories about their escapades together crossing the country and back performing folk music between performances. Shaw was the perfect emcee, making everyone feel at home and comfortable while also pulling laughter from the audience with his memories of the musicians’ antics together.

Shaw’s role was complicated by frequent stage changes, as each performer came on stage truly for only two songs. This was a benefit concert for Staine’s wife Karen, and also was streamed to over 300 households across the country. People were present to honor Staines, and also present to grieve the loss.

First on stage was Caffe Lena’s Director of the Music School Vivian Nesbith. Joined by her husband John Dillon and fiddler Taylor Whiteside, they played a beautiful “Canadian Winds” and “Come to Need an Angel.” The crowd sang along on choruses just as Staines had encouraged audiences to do, and before long the room was swaying as singing Staine’s memorable and poetic lyrics.

John Kirk and Trish Miller came on stage next and shared their joyful experiences of using Staines’ music to teach children at music clinics throughout the years. Kirk and Miller performed an upstate New York version of “The Rivers of Texas,” a song traditionally about Texas rivers, and then “The Sampler Song.” Fabulous storytellers who could pace a lesson beautifully, Kirk and Miller had the audience singing along and sharing memories of earlier times. They also commented on how Staines clearly had “hundreds more songs in him,” making our loss even greater in recognizing his profound impact on the folk community.

Sarah Craig read from Staine’s memoirs next, including a story of Staines’ audition at Lena in 1968. Due to a blizzard keeping the regular performer away, Staines was able to perform the very same day he auditioned and stayed for a four-day residence courtesy of the same storm. It was the same time that Shaw came to hear Staines at the Caffe, and offered glimpses into Staines’ close friendship with writer Logan English as well. Poignant and powerfully personal, Staines’ words transported the room to his interior experiences of losing his friend, and how music would keep them united after the death through song memories. “When I sing, there is only one voice,” Craig read, “but in my mind the memory of two.”

This moment, of course, immediately pulled at the memory of what had just happened in the car for me en route to the concert. My father died over 30 years ago, and some days I strain to recall his voice. But singing “The Happy Wanderer” not only brought back the memory of hiking with him, but his vocals as we harmonized and walked through the woods together. Staines’ music and art were deliberate in helping people to connect, even beyond death, to others.

Kate McDonnell entered the stage next clad in a cowboy hat and a guitar played upside down and backward, just like Staines did. McDonnell is an old colleague of mine and frankly shocked me with her sweet voice as she played her two songs. “January Snow” demonstrated the beauty of both her vocals and again the poetic lyrics that efficiently communicated love.

Up next were Wanda Fischer and Jonny Rosen, who we quickly learned were neighbors. Fischer is the host of the Hudson River Sampler, and she proudly showed off Staines’ first album (vinyl!) on stage. She recalled memories of first meeting Staines in a college coffee shop in Boston before playing “Traveling Shoes” followed by “Music to Me.” The second song was so tender that the night could’ve stopped just there and been satisfying enough; as she sang with crowd participation, the sense of urgency to tell loved ones who they are to us was as clear as bell.

Husband and wife team Annie and Jonny Rosen played next “My Sweet Wyoming Home” and “Child of Mine.” Their performance of “Child of Mine” included two fiddlers, calling Taylor up from the audience to join them on stage, for some improv harmonies. Especially sweet, it was a lovely and memorable moment that only could only happen at such a special time and place as this.

Kevin McKrell sang Staine’s song “Where Shall I Go” (A Cowboy’s Hard Times) with crowd support, needing a restart but chuckling at himself with humility. McKrell had bartended at the local pub The Parting Glass when Staines and Logan English had visited, and his memories were a bit different although equally fun. He won this dog lover’s heart with “Old Dogs,” reminding me to cherish my dogs for our short time together.

The final live performance of the night belonged to Dan Berggren, another Adirondack singer and storyteller. He shared how Staines wrote songs by “throwing songs to the wall,” playing his guitar in close proximity to the wall, and working through lyrics until they hit him right. He ended the night with a rousing “Jubilee” with lots of crowd participation.

Caffe Lena and Chris Shaw wouldn’t stop just yet, however, in honoring Staines. They finished with a video from Bill Staines’ last performance at the venue. His genius “Place in the Choir,” and “Crossing the Water” brought clapping and singing from the audience. And then the moving “River (Take Me Along)” carried the audience out for the night.

When the lights came up, people were shuffling to get on their coats, wiping eyes, and offering each other bear hugs. A stranger at a table next to me complimented my singing before asking me if I enjoyed the concert; I had, I told her, and appreciated singing with her. She offered me a kind smile which felt warming on such a brutally cold night.

For a few hours, the group had sung together songs that promoted peace, connection, and love. It felt strange to walk away from one another after such intimacy.

There is a companionship to group singing that I had forgotten during COVID times, and for a brief moment I felt again in the presence of these musicians and friends of Bill Staines. And while it was hard to part at the doors at Caffe Lena, I know his music will always invoke the memory of the night, of the feelings of connection, when I sing them in my car or kitchen.

And while I sing alone, only in one voice, I will hear the memory of many more.

1 Comment
  1. Wanda Fischer says

    Thanks, Laura. Bill was indeed special. You captured the essence of the tribute.

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