Concert Review: Michael Jerling @ Caffe Lena, 09/16/2023 


The sense of community for Michael Jerling’s performance at Caffe Lena Saturday night was overwhelming. The sellout crowd common for his appearances at the Caffe that stretch back more than four decades was something I personally had not experienced at the Lena’s in recent years. A palpable, high-energy buzz was punctuated by the kind of interaction that rarely happens outside of family reunions. People hugged, laughed and caught up with each other. Michael walked among his adoring fans between sets, and each song he performed struck chords with his extended family of friends that he “played” like a second instrument. 

Michael performed many of the songs from his latest album, 2018’s Family Recipe. He reached back to his first album, On Top of Fool’s Hill, for the title cut and did a stirring rendition of “Long Black Wall” which earned him a prestigious “New Folk” award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas in 1981 and was included in the Smithsonian Folkways CD celebrating 20 years of Fast Folk. As a Vietnam veteran, I identified with its message: 

The vets came back on the G.I. Bill 
In their field jackets and jeans 
Drank black coffee and smoked cigarettes 
And never spoke of what they’d seen 
Long black wall 
And nothing left to say 
Long black wall 
So many miles away 

 His lyrics are replete with anecdotes strung together in miniature short stories that draw the listener in. You aren’t on the outside looking in but a part of the story through images that are intimate, graphic and quietly powerful. They’re snapshots that could be the first musical chapter of a novel drawn from experiences well spent. They drew the audience in like a beacon, shedding light on an entire life’s worth of experiences. 

“When Words Still Mattered” defines Michael’s heritage, recalling a post-“Blowin’ in The Wind” folk revival when his songs, along with those of Dylan, Tom Paxton, Joan Beaz, and Dave Van Ronk gave identity to a generation that inspired their defining lifestyles every bit as powerful and paradigm shattering as the psychedelic sounds of Haight Ashbury. 

The title song of his latest album, “Family Recipe,” is a three-dimensional snapshot of his mother’s recipes scribbled in blue pen. “Beach House 1973” is one of the few songs that is purely autobiographical marking a point in his young life when he lived in a room on the West Coast with no heat or other amenities. 

He avoided some of the more political songs on his Family Recipe album like “The Temperature of Women,” about how his wife Teresina Huxtable who played a reed organ and accordion at the show can suddenly turn on a dime emotionally, and “Why Republicans Hate Trains” that I won’t go into at this time of potential civil war.  But he did sing “Personal Appearance” with a line about scaring the dog in his birthday suit. It’s replete with references to his balding and an admission that he’s just “short for his weight.” When he first played it for Teresina she told him, “You’re not gonna run this by people, are you?” 

He was also joined on stage by mandolin player Orion Kribs and guitarist Izzy Reinish. They were more in the forefront of the live show than the musicians on Family Recipe including the late and sorely missed Tony Markellis. 

In my preview of this show, I ran quotes made by Dave Van Ronk at a July 1970 performance at the Caffe that I feel best summarize both the lasting legacy but also reveals how much the coffeehouse culture has changed in the last half-century: 

“I really love this place. For an old anarchist like me, this is home. Lena, you’re a love, but if you were a dog, you couldn’t organize a pack of fleas. This is the best damn club! Have you ever noticed that? Have you ever noticed? Have you gone to a coffee house almost anywhere and ordered a cup of coffee and saved it for open cuts? This is probably the only coffee house in the United States where you can get a cup of coffee that won’t poison you.”  

The old anarchists are gone, but the sense of community at the venerable Caffe Lena is very much alive under the leadership of Sarah Criag.  In an email to me, she said, “So glad you wrote a piece about Michael. He’s truly one of my favorites. His melodies are so rich and soothing, and his stories are full of truth and heart.” 

The Caffe Lena is a treasure and should be treated as such, and Michael Jerling is a sterling example of the lasting legacy of this great “listening room.”

1 Comment
  1. Chris Shaw says

    Great guy, great songwriter.

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