For many longtime staffers at the Swallow Hill Music Association, what's perhaps most unexpected about the organization's twentieth anniversary, which is being commemorated on Friday and Saturday, March 12 and 13, at its new 71 E. Yale headquarters, is the fact that it's happening at all. "We're really standing on the shoulders of a lot of other people," says Rebecca Miklich, director of the association's school. "There were a lot of people who ran things on a volunteer basis and kept things going when it looked like we might go under. You could look at 150 people or so, and without any one of them, Swallow Hill probably wouldn't exist--or it wouldn't look like it looks today."
There's no denying that Swallow Hill has blossomed into a most unlikely success story. Without bombast or ballyhoo, it's become the country's second-largest folk association, behind only Chicago's Old Town School. Plenty of much larger metropolises--including New York City and Boston, two of the longtime hotbeds of folk music--have nothing that approaches it. These days, most of its activities take place inside a 21,000-square-foot complex complete with two concert halls, fifteen classrooms and a 24-track recording studio that should be up and running shortly. Working within this structure is a fourteen-person staff supplemented by 53 teachers and more than 200 volunteers who help put on approximately 120 concerts per annum. It's a sprawling operation, yet executive director Chris Daniels, who fronts the band Chris Daniels and the Kings when he's not overseeing Swallow Hill's mini-empire, insists that the organization's mission remains much the same as it was two decades ago. "We started out to teach, present and preserve folk music and to make it a vital part of Denver's cultural life," he says. "And that's what we're still doing."
The history of Swallow Hill can be traced back to 1960 and the arrival in town of Harry Tuft, a musician who's a key part of the anniversary celebration. The Philadelphia-born Tuft, who is among the wits who refer to this period as "the great folk scare," traveled to the area to ski but soon fell in love with the Exodus, a club located in the basement of a resident's hotel at 1999 Lincoln. (It's now a parking lot.) A career launching pad for performers such as Judy Collins and the Smothers Brothers, the venue was owned by Hal Neustaedter, who suggested to Tuft that he open an instrument store in the tradition of New York's Folklore Center. Tuft ultimately decided that this was a good idea and moved to Denver in December 1961, arriving on the very day that Neustaedter died in a plane crash. Soon thereafter, Tuft secured a storefront on 17th Avenue, in an area of the city known as Swallow Hill (named for Denver builder George Swallow), and dubbed his creation the Denver Folklore Center. "I was 25 at the time and totally innocent of how to run a business," Tuft says from the Denver Folklore Center's current home, at 1893 South Pearl. "It was somewhere between bewildering and frightening--but apparently there was a need for it."
Indeed, the Folklore Center and the Green Spider, a Greenwich Village-inspired coffeehouse adjacent to it, became popular gathering places for area folkies. (Green Spider owner Don Lehn has another claim to fame: Tuft says he developed a psychedelic-light-display contraption that inspired a similar device that San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium made famous.) When the Green Spider and a successor closed, the Folklore Center expanded to fill half a block's worth of space with a concert hall, a record shop and a so-called "funk" store that became well known as the single best place in Colorado to buy beads. (Its owners, Bill and Irma Fleming, are still bead wholesalers.) Although folk music went out of favor in the mid-Seventies, the ancillary enterprises, including a small school, propped up the Folklore Center and the concert hall--at least for a while. But by 1979, Tuft realized that the only way to save the concept would be to turn it into a nonprofit concern. A series of brainstorming sessions involving Tuft and a handful of other folk aficionados led directly to the founding of the Swallow Hill Music Association.
For the next six years, Swallow Hill led a gypsy lifestyle, moving from 17th Avenue to Broadway to Capitol Hill before settling in an old grocery store at 1905 South Pearl in 1985. Two years later, the association's board of directors hired Seth Weisberg to serve as executive director. Weisberg spearheaded a successful campaign to buy the building on Pearl in 1990 and oversaw a slow but steady growth that was largely fueled by the popularity of the school. When she was hired as an assistant in 1990, current school director Miklich says, "Swallow Hill was a very different place. Everyone worked out of the same little office and answered the phones and swept the floors, and we only had five classrooms--and it wasn't long before five wasn't nearly enough. So we rented a place across the street for offices and extra classrooms. But in just a couple of years, we had to use the offices for classrooms, too."
When Weisberg left Swallow Hill in 1995 to join his family's business, Daniels was chosen to take his place, and he quickly realized that the Pearl Street buildings were inadequate to meet the association's needs. In 1997, for instance, more than $20,000 was paid to rent outside venues around town for concerts too big to be held at the 125-capacity on-site music hall. For this reason, a search was begun to find a larger building--and last year Swallow Hill settled on the Yale address, which previously housed the Front Range Center for Spiritual Growth. Meredith Carson, Swallow Hill's concert director, is especially pleased that the edifice contains two concert halls, with capacities of 130 and 300, respectively. "Now we can do 90 percent of our shows right here in our own place," she says. "That allows us to pour the money we would have spent on rent back into Swallow Hill, and it lets me bring in artists that might not have been economically feasible before."
Carson's booking policies are based on the belief that folk is a tent big enough to cover American acoustic sounds, ethnic styles from around the globe and young artists on the music's cutting edge. "We do concerts with people like Tom Rush, Eric Andersen, Peggy Seeger, Ian Tyson and others who've been around for a long time and are personal heroes of mine," she says. "But we also bring in people like Dan Bern, the Nields and Moxy FrYvous, who are young, challenging, smart, political, sexy and dangerous, just like folk was when so many of us first got interested in it back in the Sixties." In an effort to further promote the balance between old and new, the association has put together Swallow Hill Records, a label whose first release, a double CD called How Sweet the Sound, spotlights music made by members of Swallow Hill's faculty. Material on it ranges from Tuft's deeply rooted "Pretty Saro" and "Timberline Rose," a timeless showcase for banjo by Ernie Martinez, to Janet Feder's highly experimental "Oh Cowboy" and "Petal by Petal," an adventurous guitar workout starring Neil Satterfield.
As for the concerts being staged in conjunction with the anniversary, they look back to Swallow Hill's early days. On March 12, veteran folk singer Utah Phillips steps into the spotlight, while the March 13 date features "all your local favorites"--a line taken from the poster of the association's first-ever concert. On the bill are Tuft, Carla Sciaky and Mary Flower. (Charles Sawtelle, of Hot Rize fame, was scheduled to appear, but at press time he was hospitalized in California with a serious lung infection.) The latter gig is a benefit for Swallow Hill that will go toward retiring the $800,000 debt incurred in the move to the new building. At this point, Daniels says, nearly half of that amount has been raised, and an anonymous party has offered an additional $125,000 matching grant. With the assistance of future fundraising shows (including an October extravaganza still in the planning stages), Daniels is optimistic that Swallow Hill will be three-quarters of the way toward its goal by year's end.
In the meantime, the Swallow Hill principals are looking forward, not back. Daniels is mulling over future Swallow Hill Records releases, and Carson is psyched about the Roots of the Blues festival set for April 22-24, the first night of which will be free to the public. (Already booked for the fest are Henry Townsend and Howard Armstrong, a pair of bluesmen who are both 91 years young.) Miklich, meanwhile, is running herd over a school with 2,900 students and a faculty that continues to come up with innovative classes for kids of all ages: Sue Schnitzer's "Rock'A Babies" targets infants as young as three months of age, while Susie Hess is the woman behind "Seniors' Music and Social Hour," designed for elders who haven't lost the beat.
"The school is a place for people to experience music on a really personal level," Miklich says. "And that's true about all of Swallow Hill. I think a lot of our experience of music in this culture is as something that's coming out of a radio or a television. It's larger than life. But here you can reach out and touch it. And no matter how big we become, I hope that's something we never lose."
If you've had to stand on the sidewalk outside the Bluebird Theater recently, you're not alone. The room was recently visited by fire marshals, who noted that it lacked sprinklers. Because of the absence of such devices, city reps announced that they would begin strictly enforcing what Chris Swank, who oversees the facility for the nobody in particular presents promotions firm, describes as "an unrealistically low capacity" of 280. Since that's around half the number of patrons who are regularly packed into the Bluebird during sold-out shows, the theater managers have had to move at least one show (David Wilcox played at the Ogden Theatre instead) and more carefully monitor plenty of others. As a result, late-arriving customers have been forced to wait outside until someone else leaves. But Swank says this situation will be corrected shortly. "We've submitted plans to increase the capacity back up to 500 by putting in sprinklers and possibly adding another bathroom and coming up with a different type of exiting. It's definitely not cheap, but it's something we need to do, and hopefully everything will be back to normal in a few more weeks."
In the meantime, Swank is up to his ears dealing with another transition--this one involving TICKETCHOICE, a homegrown ticket agency started up last year (see Feedback, April 30, 1998). The business was created as an alternative to Ticketmaster, the largest firm of its kind, and since then, TICKETCHOICE has done the job it set out to do, selling and distributing tickets for most of the shows staged at the Ogden and the Bluebird, among other venues. But according to Swank, "It was never really computerized and as efficient as it could have been." For this reason, TICKETCHOICE is being folded into TicketWeb, an Oakland corporation that Swank touts as being among the most advanced ticketing outfits in the nation. "They were one of the first companies to sell tickets on the Web," he notes, "and they evolved their software so that they could operate at outlets and do everything that a traditional ticketing company does--but for much less."
TicketWeb has prospered since it began selling tickets over the Internet in 1995: Among its clients are the San Diego Zoo, the Guggenheim Museum, the New York Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Jazz Festival, as well as sizable promotions concerns in London and South Africa. The system, Swank says, "can be a lot cheaper for the consumer than the way Ticketmaster works. Right now, Ticketmaster charges you the same service charge if you order over the Internet as they do if you order using a live operator. But TicketWeb weights their services differently. Ordering over the Web is the cheapest way to do it, so you pay the lowest service charges--and you pay lower service charges if you order using your touch-tone phone, too."
Current TICKETCHOICE walk-up branches will also benefit. "TicketWeb is going to computerize all of our thirty outlets within the next several months, and the online part of things should be up and running even sooner." He adds, "We're sort of junior partners in this company, but we're really excited about it. It was difficult to be a concert promoter and a ticket agency at the same time, so we're glad to be dealing with people who have so much expertise and have such great potential. I think TicketWeb could definitely be positioned to be a big competitor to Ticketmaster, just because of all the technical advantages--and because it saves people money."
On Saturday, March 13, at the Bluebird, you and yours will have an opportunity to bid a fond farewell to Boss 302, a garage-y act that's made the Denver rock scene a better place to hang out during most of the Nineties. Even though the group (which will be joined on the 13th by the GEDS and Abdomen) has a new CD, Whatever Happened to Fun?, more or less available for purchase, the players have decided to move on with their lives.
Guitarist Garrett Brittenham takes most of the responsibility for the split. "I guess I did it," he says. "I was getting a little burned out, a little tired, and I was ready for a break--and then after that, I was ready to do something else. I was sort of hoping the other guys would want to continue without me, but they didn't."
Frustration had a lot to do with their decision. Last year the combo recorded a raft of material with producer Mike Jourgensen and engineer Bob Ferbrache for what they thought would be their next album on Denver's 360 Twist! Records. But 360 Twist! went bust, and bassist Matt Bischoff, formerly of the Fluid and '57 Lesbian, split. Brad Stanton took over for Bischoff, joining Brittenham, vocalist Rich Groskopf, guitarist Cheyne Bamford and drummer Tony Weissenberg in the group, but the players were unable to find a new label eager to pony up for Whatever Happened to Fun? "We've still got a couple of prospects," Brittenham notes, "but if they don't pan out, we'll probably wind up putting it out ourselves, which we were hoping not to do, because we don't have any money."
The disc certainly deserves to be heard: It's Boss 302's best effort, topping even 1996's Rock Songs. There's not a weak track among the thirteen on hand, and several of the nuggets are as primo as they can be. ("Keith Black's Mummy" is flat-out great stuff, and I also dug the pleasingly dumb title tune, "Pretty Lil' Song," "Rebel, Rebel" and "Everything Is Fine.") Moreover, the band--supplemented by background shouters Chanin Floyd (of the GEDS, '57 Lesbian and Spell) and Shannon Saling--strikes the perfect balance between sloppiness and pure power. Anyone who picks up a copy of Whatever Happened to Fun? won't have to ask that question.
Brittenham expects that at least a handful of the CDs will be on sale at the Bluebird. In the meantime, he's trying to focus on the good times. "We got to open up for a lot of bands that we pretty much idolize, like the Damned, ? and the Mysterians, Thee Headcoats. The whole thing's been pretty cool--which is probably why I'm a little freaked out about not doing this anymore."
Manuel Molina and his fifteen-piece orchestra are back with Carnival '99, Molina's annual salsa-merengue-cumbia extravaganza. This year the bash takes place on Saturday, March 13, at the Holiday Inn-DIA, and Molina doesn't want folks shying away because they can't dance. "Come early," he says, "and we will teach you." Call 303-627-7431 for more information. On the same night, those in the mood to get their Irish up are invited to the Paramount Theatre to witness a post-St. Patrick's Day parade party starring the Emer Mayock Band and Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald; and on Wednesday, March 17, Celtic act Susan McKeown and the Chanting House, joined by Sicra, gets green at the Mercury Cafe.
Other lucky charms. On Thursday, March 11, Bears of the Sun shine at Cricket on the Hill, and the Blue Dogs bark at the Foundry (the combo also appears the next night at the Soiled Dove). On Friday, March 12, Hydrobass gets deep at 'Round Midnight, and St. Paul's United Methodist Church, at 1615 Ogden, presents "Steinway and Stained Glass," a jazz event featuring Joe Bonner, Tom Tilton and artist Kymburley Alisson. On Saturday, March 13, Evie's Edge, the Damn Shambles and decanonizeD make their way to the Cricket, and Rebecca Folsom joins other strummers at Boulder's Caffe Luna. On Sunday, March 14, SPIV celebrates the release of a new CD at the Bluebird, and Skull Flux provides a heads-up at Rock Island, with Hate Department. On Monday, March 15, MSBR, Government Alpha and Chapter 23 crank up the noise at Seven South, and Mudhoney sweetens the Fox Theatre. And on Tuesday, March 16, the Dave Watts Motet gigs at the Fox, with DJ Wizit, and the Kinsey Report is issued at Brendan's. Get a copy of your own.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.