“Freeing the sculpture from the block of marble, discovering the songs within the guitar”

Peter Mulvey Concert 4/4/14
Reflections by Samantha Fassak

Photo by Samantha Fassak

Normally, when the person dies the room dies, but not here. I sat with Peter Mulvey in the Lena room of Caffè Lena on Friday evening about an hour before the show. Peter has performed here over two dozen times in the past two decades. He is highly familiar with this room and yet is still always struck by the way that Lena has been preserved within this venue. “Lena,” he observed, “is still alive in this room.” The Caffè has retained photos and signs from its origin in 1960. The spirit of Lena’s ideas and the fruits of her labor in bringing these ideas to life continue to exist. “This room,” he mentioned, still contains, “the echo of all the things that have gone on in it.”

Peter Mulvey is an indie folk/rock musician from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He honed his musical and performing style largely in Dublin, Ireland. Given his Irish heritage, he had initially gone there to explore his roots and look for the “romantic” life of living in the homeland of so many great artists past—James Joyce, John Millington Synge, Samuel Beckett, and in the musical niche, U2 and Hothouse Flowers, amongst many others. In much the same way, the spirits of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Lena Spencer have been preserved within the wood and brick of the historic Caffè Lena.

Photo by Samantha Fassak

Peter had brought his guitar with him into the Lena room for our interview. The guitar, he explained, was from 1957. In Peter’s interview with Jocelyn Arem for newly released photographic cultural history volume Caffè Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse, he asserted, “Nobody likes a new pair of boots. We like things that are broken in and have been places.” That 1957 guitar has had numerous owners before him and contains within its strings and wooden body, volumes of stories—stories that Peter may not even know. Much like Michelangelo’s philosophy of freeing the sculpture from the block of marble, Peter talked about discovering the songs within the guitar.

In addition to finding inspiration within artifacts left behind by those before us, Peter also finds fulfillment in stepping outside the world of artifacts and into the natural world. In 2007, he decided to travel throughout his entire tour by bicycle, casting off the usual modern transportation methods of planes, trains, and cars. Since then, he has devoted several weeks each fall to “biking to work.” He slings his guitar over his back, hops on a folding bicycle, and embarks on a journey for which many artists would hire a tour bus.

“When you’re biking,” he describes, “you collapse into a certain rhythm.” You also have ample time to think about what is important to you and what it means to be alive. When he performs, he can put these ideas out into the world and audiences can catch a glimpse into his experiences and compare them with their own. There’s a certain element of connection in this process. “All I’m trying to do is learn about being a human being.” What better way to learn than from other human beings? “Life is the same for all of us,” he explains. “I do not recall meeting anyone who was invulnerable to hurt and uncertainty.” He sees art as a way to reach out and connect, and to learn by sharing and making sense of these experiences.

Photo by Samantha Fassak

Peter emanates a strong vibe of genuineness. When I asked him whether he shapes his performances to his audiences, he replied, “No, I just play.” Why would he change himself for an audience when he has such a strong sense of who he is and what he wants to sing about?

Peter doesn’t take himself too seriously though. One of the final songs he played, called “Copenhagen Airport” has just one simple lyric: “Sweet bearded Jesus, the women in the Copenhagen airport are so good-looking. And not one of them is going to London.” He followed this song with a matter-of-fact remark to the audience, “Sometimes there’s not a lot to say,” for which the audience offered up a hearty laugh.

Photo by Samantha Fassak

He ended the night with American folk standard “Goodnight Irene.” The room filled with the communal chorus of “Irene, goodnight, Irene goodnight; Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene; I’ll see you in my dreams.” Lena’s name seemed to glow from the “Caffè Lena” sign on the wall behind Peter as he strummed his guitar—one could almost sense her spirit joining in.

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