Beacon has become a stop for talent on tour
By Brian PJ Cronin
It wasn’t long ago that, if you were in Beacon and hoped to hear live music, your best bet was to bump into Pete Seeger.
But as one of Pete’s oldest friends once wrote: The times they are a-changin’. Walk down Main Street on any given night and you’re likely to hear music spilling out of the Towne Crier Café, Quinn’s or Dogwood, each of which opened in Beacon within the past five years. Add the Beacon Music Factory’s new home on Fishkill Avenue for those who want to learn to perform, the Beacon Soundworks recording studio and not one but two instrument shops, and the city has quickly become the best place in the Hudson Valley to consistently hear or play live music.
What seems like an overnight success began more than 40 years ago in an unlikely place: the floor of the New York City stock exchange.
That’s where Phil Ciganer was working as a trader during the day while he explored New York City clubs into the night. Realizing that his passion was for bands rather than bonds, Ciganer decided to open up his own club. Wary of the drug epidemic then ravaging the city’s night life, he traveled the country, looking for a burgeoning artistic community that could benefit from what he had in mind. He found the perfect place: Austin.
“The problem was, when you left Austin, you were in Texas,” Ciganer recalls. “I wasn’t so sure about Texas.”
Instead, Ciganer took over a general store by the side of the road in Beekman and opened the Towne Crier Café there in 1972. “I decided I’d just try the place out for a few months,” he said. “Suddenly it’s 16 years later.” From Beekman, the cafe moved to Pawling and then, in October 2013, to the old DMV building on Beacon’s Main Street.
That same month, a block away, the breakfast hangout Quinn’s was transformed into a Japanese restaurant / dive bar / music venue. The owners tapped a friend, James Keepnews, to book a Monday night jazz series.
Keepnews and Ciganer, along with Keepnews’ colleagues at Quinn’s, have brought an astonishing amount of talent to Beacon, including William Parker, Ani DiFranco, Rickie Lee Jones, Thurston Moore, John Sebastian, Leon Russell, Michelle Shocked, Commander Cody, Dar Williams, Marc Ribot and Suzanne Vega, to name a few. This fall, Ciganer is bringing singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Patti Larkin to town, Keepnews has booked jazz pianist Matthew Shipp for St. Andrew’s Church and Japanese pop punk legends Shonen Knife will be swinging by Quinn’s on their 35th anniversary tour.
Ciganer has a deep roster of connections to draw from, but when he started out, booking bands was a battle. “I had to do networking without the internet,” he said. “Going to festivals and other venues, interfacing with other musicians and telling them that I had a place up here they could perform. Back then there really wasn’t any other place to play in the lower Hudson Valley, so that helped me build an inventory of musicians.”
Ciganer’s break came in the form of a break down. A British folksinger who booked a night at the first Towne Crier a month after it opened called the day of the gig to tell Ciganer that he was stuck in Cape Cod with a busted van. He offered to phone a few friends to see if someone could fill in at the last moment. Desperate, and without any other options, Ciganer agreed.
A few minutes later, Ciganer’s phone rang. “I understand you need some help tonight,” said the voice on the other end. It was Pete Seeger.
Seeger not only performed that night, but formed a lifelong friendship with Ciganer, which opened the door to more connections and led to Ciganer founding the Clearwater music festival.
When Quinn’s opened, Keepnews had already amassed a roster of contacts thanks to years of producing concerts throughout New York. But it still took a lot of phone calls and emails to fill the early bills. “Now, though, there’s very little of me having to reach out at all,” he said. “And I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been filling up the place on Monday nights with people who may not even consider themselves jazz fans but they really like the vibe that we have going on in there. There’s a lot of interesting people here in Beacon, and they’re the kind of people who are attracted to new experiences.”
Keepnews has also brought punk and heavy metal bands to Quinn’s, and the venue hosted a classical music night this past summer. “Being able to present a beautiful classical music night in a former diner is a wonderful experience, and I’d like us to be able to do more of that,” he said.
Ciganer, who says he spends 8 to 12 hours a day listening to new music to stay abreast, believes the live music scene in Beacon is just getting started. “I’d like to see a big regionwide festival based here, like South by Southwest,” he said. “You can see what that did for Austin.”
Keepnews says that if the crowds keep getting bigger, the talent he can help bring to town will get bigger as well. Many of the concerts he books at Quinn’s are free, with attendees being asked to chip in for the band.
“Sometimes the donations that come in well exceed the money that we’ve guaranteed to pay the artists,” he said. “But sometimes it doesn’t. I hope that people factor in that along with the price of a few beers at the bar, they should plan on throwing some money to the musicians, because if I could start guaranteeing musicians that there will be at least 50 people, then there’s no end to the incredible amount of talent I could bring in there. Just a little more support would open up a lot more doors.”