On Saturday, September 30, Bobby Long will play Caffe Lena for the first time. Long, a singer-songwriter who cut his teeth in the London folk music scene, has earned a reputation as a gutsy, captivating performer with a blues-infused voice and a poet’s sensibility. His vivid song lyrics and distinct guitar work grab the audience by the shirt collar, and his raw, honest, and skillfully vulnerable performance style pulls them close.
It just may be that Caffe Lena is the perfect place to see Long on stage. In addition to launching careers and keeping the music alive, Saratoga’s legendary coffeehouse has remained steadfastly committed to storytelling in all forms. And Long is a storyteller. He’s a wordsmith whose lyrics will linger in your head for days. The imagery he embeds in the songs is a throwback of sorts to poet-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, or Tom Waits, but his unique voice cuts through the lines and strumming. As much as his musical influences seep in, the songs feel entirely his own.
Long grew up in Wiltshire, England, but he’s lived in New York for the last seven years. In the fall of 2009, I saw him perform at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village. The crowd was enthralled – they hung on his every word. Even though he was a bit uncomfortable with the spotlight, or perhaps because he was uncomfortable, he charmed the room. In today’s crazy, hyperactive, often overproduced music scene, it’s easy to forget the power of that lone performer on stage, armed only with a guitar, a mic, and lyrics. A few years ago, Branford Marsalis noted that “superficiality is in and, you know, depth and quality are kind of out” – Long proves that’s not always the case, especially when he’s on stage.
I admit that when A Winter Tale, his first studio album, was released, I found myself scrolling back to older versions of songs on the self-released Dirty Pond Songs and Live at Arlene’s Grocery. I wanted to recall that live experience, but that’s only because the live show was such an experience. A few years later, I caught Long at The Linda in Albany. Coming off of the release of The Backing Singer (EP), his stage act was more practiced and he was more confident as a performer, but the concert was just as open, heartfelt, and moving as the set at The Bitter End. I felt then, as I do now, that he was a musician to keep an eye on.
Over the phone, with his five-month old son in the background, Long and I talk about how his music has evolved since The Bitter End in 2009, and what he makes of it all.
“I’ve become a bit more interested in writing music that’s slightly larger and grander,” Long says. “But I still love playing on my own. I haven’t played with a band for a year or so, at least for a proper show. My sound has developed and changed quite a lot, but it’s still always rooted around me and an acoustic guitar.”
Long’s latest album, Ode to Thinking, was released by Compass Records in 2015, and it features a return to his roots. Looking back, Long mentions that his first record had an old school country influence. Then, after The Backing Singer, his next studio record (Wishbone) was rock-based. “I felt like I hadn’t really done that singer-songwriter album,” he says. “So it was worth a revisit.” The result was Long’s strongest outing yet. The 11 tracks on Ode to Thinking are varied in their subjects and approach, but they all showcase Long’s vocals, guitar, and songwriting skills. When compared to his earlier work, they also suggest someone who is older, more mature, road-tested.
Long’s music sometimes feels like a freight train beating down the tracks. (This is especially true in the country-influenced A Winter Tale.) Other times, his songs are patient, whisky-sipping, and contemplative. Through it all, the one constant is his lyrical styling. Each song is colorful, surprising, and haunting. For example, lines like “my wounded eyes will see again” in “The Bounty of Mary Jane” stick with you. Newer songs like “Kill Someone” and “I’m Not Going Out Tonight” are character-driven vignettes.
Like Dylan or Cohen, the songs can be cerebral and vocab-happy, but at the same time, the lyrics and melodies lean on each other to create something compelling – a story, a situation, a turn of phrase, a refrain that’s imbued with meaning and metaphor. In the title track to Ode to Thinking, Long sings about the confusion and fear in these “strange old days”: “So long to thinking, the crowd will travel well / we’ve unchained a monster and it left me feeling unwell. / So long to knowing, the past is buried still / under a hard place in an empty wishing well.” This chorus, in particular, seems fitting and topical in 2017.
Given all that I’ve laid out, it’s probably no surprise that Long is also a poet. In 2012, he released a book of poems titled Losing my Brotherhood. Early this year, he followed it up with a second collection titled Losing my Misery.
“I just really love creating and writing – it feels as magical today as it did when I was eight.” Long says that his poetry “steamed out” of his years of listening and reading Leonard Cohen. “I always really enjoyed poetry, and I just wanted to do something a bit different.”
I ask Long how his poetry practice influences his songwriting, if at all.
“I feel like a better songwriter after I write poetry,” he answers. “It doesn’t necessarily aid the song, but it definitely gets rid of lots of kerfuffle. When I come to write songs, I have what I need, rather than thousands of thousands of words floating around my head.”
Long also enjoys the freedom that poetry can offer, the sense of experimentation, and ability to shift perspective. “Poetry can be one verse or it can be 65 stanzas – it can be anything. You’re not limited. Music, sometimes, especially when you’re doing it within a certain form, gets a little tricky.”
In addition to Cohen, he counts Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda, Simon Armitage, and John Cooper Clarke, the English punk poet, as influences. We chat about Clarke, and I can hear the enthusiasm in his voice. “Usually poets are like Tennyson – guys dressed in long, white robes, who are miserable. And here’s this guy who’s like Dylan in the 70s,” he says about Clarke. “I saw him live, and he’s like a machine gun – he talks about cheap holiday, doing coke in the corner, or getting sick on the plane to Tennerife.” He jokes, but it’s clear that Clarke’s performance poet style and content made a lasting impression.
As we shift to songwriting, I wonder how it all fits together. In some ways, it’s easy to understand – the poetry, the songs, the drawings in the book, which Long did himself, and so on are all creative outlets. Long’s an artist with stories, characters, lines, and words swirling around his head, and he’s found ways to channel those pieces onto the page or into the strings. His description of his poetry writing as ridding himself of the kerfuffle is telling – he is mining this stream of creativity for the best song material. It all goes back to songwriting.
I ask about his approach to songwriting and what he sets out to accomplish.
“You try to paint a painting for people’s heads so that they can live inside the song, I guess,” he explains. “That’s what I love what Cohen or Dylan does – that instant you’re transported. You feel like you’re living inside a painting. It’s what I try to do and want to do, and I feel like I’m getting better at it.”
In some ways, Long says feels a responsibility to be descriptive. Briefly, we touch on “Two Years Old,” a song on his first album. There, he notes that he “couldn’t muck around.”
“I felt like I had to paint that fully. It’s about a returning soldier, and I couldn’t be wishy-washy with words. I had to be pretty close to the bone, but you always have to explain the characters and move them from point A to B. You kind of have a responsibility there, especially with that song.”
So, what’s next for Bobby Long? It turns out that the day before we talked, he’d just finished recording the next album with Compass Records.
“The new album is definitely the best thing I’ve ever done,” Long notes. “I always feel like the new one is the best one I’ve ever done, but I feel really strongly about this one – I think you’ll really like it.”
In the meanwhile, he’s been playing some of the new songs on the road, and he says that the Caffe Lena crowd can expect a mix of new and old, and everything in between. “To be honest, I’ve got to the stage where I don’t do a set list. I play what I feel like, and I kind of take requests. I play a bunch of everything. It’s lovely and liberating.”
Before we end the conversation, we chat about fatherhood. I ask if it’s influenced his writing or changed his approach to music, his career, or touring.
“Music has always been sort of a heavy thing, but now, I guess, I’m less intense, and I’m taking it a little less personally,” he explains. “To be honest, I just feel fortunate that I have it, that I’m able to do it, and that I have it as an outlet.”
He seems to have found a groove and a new appreciation for his craft.
“I’m constantly playing guitar to the kid, and that’s the happiest I’ve ever been, when he’s watching me play guitar – now I have a whole new appreciation for music. To see him react to music, I love it even more.”
A lot has changed since that show at The Bitter End in 2009. In many ways, you can draw a dotted line between The Bitter End, which opened in 1961, and Caffe Lena, which opened in 1960. Both of these coffeehouses have launched careers, nurtured artists, and lifted up great talent. Most importantly, they’re still doing it today with artists like Bobby Long.
After that night way back when, I admit I wondered when Long would make it up to Caffe Lena. I never imagined it would be eight years, three full-length albums, two poetry collections, and two EPs later. It’s been a long time coming, but I have no doubt that the wait will be well worth it.
For tickets or more info, visit www.caffelena.org.