The modest music maestro

Story by Laura Cacace.

Phil Ciganer didn’t always dream of opening a music venue as unique as the Towne Crier Cafe in Beacon — one that provides a fine dining experience for listeners and an atmosphere of comfort and excitement for musicians. But in 1972, he founded the Cafe in Beekman, turning his back on other, perhaps more profitable ventures to, fulfill a new dream. 

“I grew up in the ’60s, when the club scene was really thriving, and I was a trader on Wall Street — close proximity to the village,” Phil says. “So I’d finish work and walk to the Village and spend my evenings in clubs.” Clubs that included Cafe au Go Go, The Other End (otherwise known as The Bitter End), The Gaslight Cafe, Cafe Wha?, Gerde’s Folk City and Steve Paul’s Scene — places where, as Phil puts it, “something of high quality” was going on every night.

“When a major opportunity was offered to me — a seat on the Stock Exchange — I thought about it, and I really didn’t want to do that. What I really wanted to do was hang out in clubs.”

There he saw the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia and others who didn’t necessarily have the recognition that they deserved. During that time, Phil discovered a talent of his own. He laughs when he says, “My talent is recognizing talent and bringing it together with an audience.”

After turning down the Wall Street job, he made up his mind about what he truly wanted to do — create a unique venue for musicians who otherwise may not have had a platform to come and share their music. “I spent the next two and half years searching for a community that was in need of what I had in mind. I decided it was Austin, Texas. It was just an accident that I ended up on Beekman Road and I decided to try there for three months. When I looked back, 16 years had gone by.”

After Beekman Road, he moved his venue down the road and spent 25 years in Pawling, before the Towne Crier landed on Main Street in Beacon in 2013. The list of artists — many of whom are musical giants that the Hudson Valley might never have seen without the existence of the Cafe — is extensive and diverse, spanning genres. Since 1972, Phil has welcomed members of  The Band; Tom, Steve and Jen Chapin (members of Harry’s family); Pete Best, the original drummer for The Beatles; Rick Derringer; Laura Nyro; Randy Newman; Richie Havens; Poco; Leslie Gore; Suzanne Vega; Judy Collins; and Pete Seeger, to name a few. Sawyer Fredericks, the 2015 winner of “The Voice,” actually got his start at the Towne Crier.

“He became a national celebrity almost overnight,” Phil says matter-of-factly. Even though he wouldn’t normally watch the show, Phil made sure to tune in to see Sawyer,  who,  in a way, is one of his own. “Because he started here, he’s coming [back to perform] in early February.” Hailey Knox recently signed a major deal with a record label and will open the show for Sawyer. Phil’s known Hailey since she was a little girl but doesn’t suggest that any of her success, or Sawyer’s, is due, even in part, to their start at The Cafe. When pressed, he agrees that it makes him feel good to know where they began, but shrugs as he goes on to say, “Over the years, there have been many musicians that just come in here, and something happens along the way where they catch on nationally and become household names.”

Phil’s the kind of guy who’s happy to facilitate the art, and if something good happens for those artists along their respective journeys, he’s just as content to stand back and watch. Because for him, the fulfillment doesn’t come in knowing that he’s been crucial in broadening the Hudson Valley music scene since 1972 or with the national success his artistic discoveries have gained.

“It’s the joy in people’s eyes, the connection between the audience and the performers in an intimate setting. A nice environment, good food — it’s a total experience.” It takes a second, but he tacks on a final reason. “And the appreciation I get at the end of the evening.”

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