John Denver

A Rocky Mountain High Tribute

John Denver, the country-folk star from the last century, lives on in a traveling show that blends archival footage and live performance.

By - Feb 19th, 2013 01:12 am

John Denver

The Pabst Theater, with its gilded carvings and red velvet seats, seemed an unlikely venue for a John Denver tribute concert. Between the cold weather and the fact that this was, after all, Milwaukee, nowhere near the Rocky Mountains so close to his heart, the audience filing in wearing jeans, plaid shirts and boots (cowboy and otherwise) seemed unlikely denizens for the theater.

But there we were. Then the music began, and almost at once, it was “Good To Be Back Home Again.”

The show, held here on Feb. 16, was part of a multi-city tour organized by Denver’s estate 15 years after his death. It includes archival footage of the singer, songwriter and activist, some of which has never been seen before. A large electronic screen at the back of the stage showed a large photo of Denver, who died in 1997 when the experimental plane he was piloting crashed into the Pacific Ocean.  In front of the screen were a piano and a number of chairs later occupied by a string section, percussionist, guitarist and banjo, keyboard and woodwind players.  Among them: Jim Horn (winds), Chris Nole (keyboards) and Alan Deremo (bass), all of whom had toured with Denver, as had lead singer Jim Salestrom. He sang alone and along with recordings by Denver. He also emceed the show.

The tribute concert featured archival footage of John Denver, along with live band accompaniment. Photo credit Erik Ljung.

There were John Denver voice-overs and performances, recorded for television specials or from his tours.  The songs were mostly performed by Denver on the large screen at the back of the stage, sometimes with videos of him on cross country skis or snowshoes.  During “The Eagle and the Hawk,” there were also shots of Denver’s plane, and, in his own voice, statements of how much he loved to fly.  We saw Denver’s tombstone twice.

The playlist included many of his familiar songs, from “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” “Follow Me,” and “Annie’s Song” through the toe-tapping “Grandma’s Feather Bed” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”  When he played “This Old Guitar” on the guitar that had been his grandmother’s, Salestrom held up the very same instrument at the front of the stage.  By the time Denver played “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” the venue didn’t matter anymore. Neither did the age of the audience.

“Country Roads” took everybody home, and of course, the final piece was “Rocky Mountain High.” In between, there were shots of Denver out in the wilderness, on (and in) the ocean with Jacques Costeau (during “Calypso”) and reminding everyone that when the environmental battles are over, “it is we who must measure the loss.”

The enthusiastic but respectful audience is still feeling the loss of Denver (had he lived, he would turn 70 at the end of this year).  Denver transcended folk and country to become a pop star and a crusader for environmental causes.  His music still gives you a Rocky mountain high, and his untimely death merely leaves him forever young.

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Categories: Classical

0 thoughts on “John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Tribute”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Lovely article Ellen. I hope this comes to Australia. He is missed everyday in my life.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the review! I really wanted to go but had to miss it. :c(

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nice review but one correction. John Denver was cremated & his remains spread over the Rocky Mtns. There is no tombstone. Probably the photo was of the John Denver Sanctuary in Aspen where the lyrics to his songs were engraved.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Nancy, it was definitely a tombstone. Whether it is on a tomb/grave is another matter entirely. It bore his name (although the name was “John Denver” rather than “Henry John Deutschendorf”), dates of birth and death, and a short (about ten words) epitaph.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks from the “John Denver faithful” for your thoughtful and descriptive review. It was a marvelous concert! At first the idea seemed strange, but when Chris Nole, Jim Horn and the other former JD musicians signed on, we KNEW it would be fantastic. These guys have played every year, for the past 15 years, at the October Celebration of John Denver’s Life in Aspen. And many of those video clips were from the family’s private collection, very rare. We hope that these kind of reviews and the videos shot at the different venues will lead to more, widespread tours in the future.

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