The bar is still open and audiences still fill Daniels Hall, but it isn’t the same without Jeff Rudolph.
With tears and laughter people came together Sunday evening to celebrate the golden-hearted, gruff-voiced Hospitality and Café Manager who became synonymous with Swallow Hill Music for more than a decade.
Jeff died peacefully on February 15, following a weekend of concerts featuring Mollie O’Brien & Rich Moore, Dakota Blonde, and Cheryl Wheeler. Many considered it the perfect weekend for Jeff. He was 69 years old.
“Hey Jeff, we miss you and we really appreciate having the time we did get with you,” Concert Director Roger Menell said.
Roger talked about Jeff’s sense of duty and service, and how that moved him to make sure artists knew they belonged, and that Swallow Hill Music was not just another stop on the road. He summed it up as “The Jeff Touch.”
Sunsets on the roof, cookies for kids, gag gifts, and thoughtfully selected booze and desserts were all examples of that touch.
One by one, performers, volunteers, music lovers and Swallow Hill Music staffers past and present took the stage in Daniels Hall to recall a sweet man with a grizzled exterior and a blunt way of calling it as he saw it.
“He made us feel like such rock stars,” singer Mollie O’Brien, who worked with Jeff countless times, remembered.
Mollie’s husband and musical partner, guitarist Rich Moore, added that he did not remember when he first met Jeff, only that “he just appeared like the chorus of a good song,” and remained a fixture thereafter.
“Jeff is one of the most enjoyable people that I’ve worked with,” longtime volunteer Gordon Steuck said. “I feel very privileged to have known Jeff.”
Jeff’s son, also named Jeff, spoke on behalf of his family. Looking out over the gathering of over one hundred people he said, “This is perfect. This is his favorite place and all of his favorite people are here.”
He called his father “the best person I ever met.”
Boxes of tissues were placed strategically throughout Daniels Hall, but just as often the room was filled with laughter. The loudest laughs came as speaker after speaker attempted to approximate Jeff’s signature voice. It’s a voice musician Scott McCormick likened to Tom Waits, but perhaps with a little something extra behind it.
The second half of the evening belonged to music in the form of a memorial open mic hosted by Denver Folklore Center founder Harry Tuft.
Among those to take the stage were Mollie O’Brien & Rich Moore, Dakota Blonde, Blind Lemming Chiffon, Scott McCormick and Trent Nelson and Bronwyn Hockersmith, Clay Kirkland, Michael Stanwood, Reggie Barrett, Tom Scharf, and Paul Trunko.
Many joked that Jeff was a rock and roller and no folkie. And yet, it was an evening of music tailor made for sitting back and taking in, maybe while sipping on some Mount Gay Rum. Jeff Rudolph music.
Jeff’s longtime partner in crime Richard Montgomery took the stage to share one last set of memories. He summed up their night-of-show philosophy as “By gosh, we’re here and we’re going to put on a show!”
Jeff and Richard worked over a thousand concerts together, and representing Swallow Hill Music the right way was always their goal.
“Jeff, we’re going to miss you and we will always remember your efforts here at Swallow Hill.”
It’s a simple statement that resonates in countless ways.
For the final song, Mollie and Rich joined Harry for an unadorned and heartfelt rendition of Mark Knopfler’s “Wherever I go.”
As the evening wound to a close, a dozen or so people remained in the lobby, maybe not ready to leave. By this point laughter and community prevailed, leading one to observe “It’s a big hug fest.”
Indeed it was.
The final words belong to Jeff, from an email he sent Swallow Hill Music staffers after a memorable cafe show in 2014. Swallow Hill Music’s Hanna Ackerman and Chris McGarry shared the message onstage earlier in the evening:
Will the circle be unbroken? Who knows but probably not as long as there is a Swallow Hill Music. The circle looked good tonight. A circle started 35 years ago with its roots and soul at the Denver Folklore Center and Harry Tuft. The circle was strengthened tonight by a band mentored by a teacher at Swallow Hill. It came together, this connection to the past and present, it sounded good, the vibe was right and then the magic- the night transcends the norm, what was good becomes great, what was annoying goes away, people crowd around to be a part of it and expectations are exceeded. You expect nothing and you get it all. Doesn’t always happen but tonight it did. It was cool. It was Swallow Hill.