Say it ain’t so, Phil! We might as well get the bad news out of the way first: After 23 years in its current location in Pawling, the beloved mid-Hudson venue for acoustic music, the Towne Crier Café, is being forced to vacate the premises. Phil Ciganer’s lease on the spacious Southwestern-decorated nightclub/restaurant on Route 22 expires at the end of February, and the owner wants to sell the building. (Cut to shocked, despairing looks on the faces of tens of thousands of music fans.)
The end of an era, you say? Maybe not quite. The good news is that there is hope for a new venue. “I want to stress that this is not the end,” writes Ciganer in his announcement on the Crier’s website. “The Towne Crier has relocated twice before in its 40-year history. I look forward to welcoming you to a new and better Towne Crier location soon.”
“Better” sounds suspiciously like my favorite impresario has someplace specific in mind, with negotiations perhaps already underway; but as of presstime, Phil’s still playing his cards close to his chest. Since the news got out, he says, people have been offering him tips of venues potentially available all over the map, from Woodstock, New Paltz and Poughkeepsie to Great Barrington, Massachusetts to various Westchester towns – “where the deep pockets are,” he notes. He hints that an announcement might be forthcoming as early as next week, but negotiations can always fall through.
Still, it’s heartening to hear him say, “I’m not ready to retire yet. The word ‘retirement’ scares me.” And it’s a point well-taken that the Crier is already in its third incarnation in Pawling. Many fondly remember the funky, intimate ell-shaped space that it first occupied in 1972 at what was once the Stage Coach Inn – later called the Beekman General Store – on Beekman Road. The original stage was the size of a postage stamp and barely one step up from the warped wood-plank floor; the sightlines were strange and the walls were covered with dusty packages of antique household products like Gold Dust. The performers used the same bathrooms as the clientele, and often hung out chatting with them on the front porch between sets.
Some of this correspondent’s most vivid musical memories were formed in that tiny space: the members of Fairport Convention getting tipsy enough to play the filthy version of “The Sailor’s Alphabet,” for instance, or feisty blueswoman Ellen McIlwaine recounting the tale of how she was provoked to throw her drink in Jimi Hendrix’s face. When its long run in Beekman ended in 1987, the Crier relocated for a brief spell to Allyn’s restaurant in Millbrook before moving on south to Pawling.
During those early years, Phil Ciganer was also the guy responsible for organizing the music at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revivals, introducing the Hudson Valley to all sorts of obscure flavors of world music, from Inuit throat-singing to Andean panpipes to the weird, unearthly harmonies of the Balkans. Thanks to Phil’s eclectic tastes and extensive contacts in the folk music world, those festivals offered opportunities to see legends of regional music, like the ‘30s-era stringband Martin, Bogan and Armstrong and the authentic Cajun sounds of the Balfa Brothers, while they still lived.
For two years in the 1980s Ciganer ran the Bear Mountain Festival of World Music and Dance – an admirable experiment that unfortunately proved financially unviable. Among other treats, the Bear Mountain fests exposed the region to the up-and-coming stars of New Vaudeville, like Avner the Eccentric and the Flying Karamazov Brothers, as well as a whole extravaganza of stars of the English Music Hall tradition organized by Brit-turned-Vermonter Tony Barrand. Where else are you going to see and hear stuff like that?
The ‘90s brought the Crier more room to stretch out, accommodate a bigger audience and feed them better as well. Although the original venue offered a light café menu of soups and sandwiches, the spotlight was mainly on the extraordinary cakes baked by Phil’s wife, Mary Murphy Ciganer. You can still get those famous desserts in Pawling; but over time it became more of a place to go for dinner and a show, rather than just the show plus some refreshments. You could also hang out at the semi-separate bar and hear the music piped in, if you didn’t care that much about sightlines.
In all three locations, the Towne Crier became legendary as a place where established acts would go to perform for a smaller crowd than they could get in a concert hall – just because it was a fun place to play, with an appreciative audience – and where relative unknowns would go to get established. The list of performers who went on from the Crier to bigger and more remunerative things is a mile long, and many show their loyalty by coming back again and again. It’s said that the Bacon Brothers formed their band on the Towne Crier stage, and that Béla Fleck was inspired to take up the banjo when his parents brought him there to hear Bill Keith and Tony Trischka. Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams and Loudon Wainwright III’s sister Sloane both got their starts at open-mic nights at the Crier.
I was there myself one night to hear Loudon when his ex-wife, the late, great Kate McGarrigle, turned up in the audience with their then-unknown teenage son Rufus, who was attending a local private school at the time. The splintered musical family reunited briefly in song onstage for a few encores. Indeed, spotting celebrities in the audience at the Crier is so common that it gets to be old hat after a while.
It should also be noted, for the half-dozen or so people who have never been there, that the Towne Crier is much more than just a folk club. You can go there to hear rock, jazz, blues, swing, gospel, country, bluegrass, rockabilly, doo-wop, New Age, poetry and spoken-word performances, as well as just about any variety of ethnic music imaginable. Most of it’s acoustic, but there are wall sockets available for world-class electric guitarists to plug in their gear as well.
The one downside of the Crier’s last move was that Pawling is a long drive for most of us Ulsterites, especially late at night. So I for one haven’t visited as often as I would like over the last decade. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Phil Ciganer will have good news very soon about a new location – and hoping very hard that it will be someplace further north and/or west. If anybody out there knows of the perfect Ulster County venue (ideally, complete with willing business partners/investors), please let Phil know and I’ll be your friend forever. I just can’t stand the idea of this priceless regional cultural treasure ceasing to be.
At least until the end of February, the Café will continue its busy schedule with three or more shows per week, plus the twice-weekly open mic. One longtime Ulster County-based habitué of the Crier, the Marc Black Band, will be making its farewell appearance at the Pawling venue on Saturday, January 21 at 8:30 p.m. Warren Bernhardt, Amy Fradon, Eric Parker, Michael Esposito and Don Davis will join Black in what is likely to be a heartfelt and tuneful tribute. Tickets go for $20 in advance and $25 at the door.
To see the rest of the “final” lineup through the end of February, visit www.townecrier.com, and call (845) 855-1300 for reservations. After February, Phil’s plan is to produce 40th-anniversary concerts at other venues until a permanent location is established. Stay tuned for updates! The Towne Crier Café is located – for now – at 130 Route 22 in Pawling, just off Route 55.