By William Belcher
Posted September 28, 2017
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.