Far Out! Paying tribute to John Denver at the Wheeler
In the years following John Denver’s death in a plane crash in 1997, at age 54, his former bandmates and writing partners gathered in Aspen for a weekend of concerts on the anniversary of the accident. The informal get-together quickly grew into a global event, bringing fans and musicians to Aspen for a days-long celebration of his life and work, with a concert at the Wheeler Opera House featuring Denver’s former bandmates as its annual centerpiece.
Last year, due to construction at the Wheeler, the tribute concert by Denver’s old band was taken off the bill and Chris Collins filled it with a fundraiser show at the Theatre Aspen tent.
Collins, a Texas singer-songwriter with floppy hair and brown glasses that accentuate his resemblance to Denver, is a popular interpreter of the Aspen icon’s work and has been a prominent part of the John Denver celebration for years.
This weekend, Collins and his band, Boulder Canyon, bring the keynote tribute back to the Wheeler.
The smaller show by Collins and Boulder Canyon last year in the Theatre Aspen tent raised money for four new inscribed stones in the John Denver Sanctuary. With the Wheeler scheduled to undergo another renovation next fall, Saturday’s show is likely the last big John Denver tribute in the concert hall until 2016.
The weekend typically draws an international crowd of John Denver devotees, coming from Europe, Asia, Australia and from around the U.S. Collins credits the event’s drawing power to the message in Denver’s music. Here in Colorado, we may think of Denver as our immortal poet laureate and our longtime neighbor, celebrating Aspen and its mountains in song. For those making the pilgrimage to Aspen, the connection is perhaps deeper.
“The people that come up here from all around basically come because of the body of his work, which was more than the hits you heard on the radio,” Collins said. “It was about nature, the human condition, humanity itself, longing — those things are timeless. … His music basically talks about stewardship of the earth and stewardship of each other.”
Correspondingly, Collins’ shows tend to include deep cuts outside of the Denver standards, though, of course, he always includes the hits, too.
“You can’t do a John Denver tribute show without playing ‘Rocky Mountain High’ and ‘Annie’s Song,’ but we’ll throw some oddball stuff in there, too,” Collins said. “We’ll keep it interesting.”
He counts early Denver folk songs like “Poems, Prayers and Promises,” “Boy from the Country,” and “My Sweet Lady” as his favorites to perform.
Many of the current fans making the pilgrimage to Aspen, he noted, came around on Denver when they heard songs in his catalog beyond hits like “Rocky Mountain High” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
“I think that the reason they come up is that John’s music resonates with them, not only on a musical level but on a message level,” Collins said. “Back in the ’70s, John’s music was considered very saccharine, very sweet — it was kind of hip not to like him.”
Aspen’s most recognizable pop culture icon, Denver charted a seemingly endless stream of hits from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. His No. 1 Billboard songs from 1974 to 1976 alone included “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” “Annie’s Song,” “Back Home Again,” “Sweet Surrender,” “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” “Calypso,” “Fly Away,” “Looking For Space” and “Like A Sad Song.”
Denver’s music also is set for a major reconsideration this fall. He’ll get the deluxe box set treatment next month with the 90-song, four-CD “All My Memories: The John Denver Collection.” Spanning the mid-1960s to Denver’s death, the collection includes standards like “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Rocky Mountain High” along with live recordings, early folk tunes and six previously unreleased tracks. Collaborations with the Mitchell Trio, Olivia Newton-John, Sylvie Vartan, Placido Domingo, Emmylou Harris, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and, of course, the Muppets also are included.
The new release offers a chance for the full breadth of Denver’s output, and the less well-known material that Collins cherishes, to reach music fans.
“He’s a genius,” Colorado Music Hall of Fame director G. Brown writes in the box set’s liner notes. “He’ll defeat all the cynicism in the world because he’s so real. You don’t have to think too much about him — just lie back and let his sunshine wash all over you. And you know you’ll feel real.”
Collins’ band is made up of musicians who met at previous John Denver Celebration weekends in Aspen. Boulder Canyon is a six-man backing band including talents like guitarist Paul Swanton, who compiled the 200-song John Denver songbook for guitarists.
Saturday’s show also will include a guest spot from Mack Bailey, the Aspen-based musician who performed with Denver on his last tour.
Despite his resemblance, Collins notes his band performs a tribute and an interpretation of John Denver’s songs. It’s not in impersonation act.
“I don’t sing exactly like John, or try to, but there is a similar timbre in my voice that I think people accept John’s music through me — I’m a surrogate,” Collins explained. “If I quote John, I say ‘John used to say …’ while an impersonator would go out and say, ‘Hi everybody, I’m John Denver!’ At the tribute shows, we try to be respectful and not use his phrases, like ‘Far out.’”
This year’s John Denver events also include smaller concerts at the Limelight Hotel and Aspen Community Church on Friday from the Aspen Meadow Band, John Denver Project Band, Billy Jacobs, Mark Cormican and Starwood. Saturday, before the main event with Collins and Boulder Canyon at the Wheeler, Chris Bannister and Ron Matthews perform Denver’s music at the Aspen Community Church and Mountain Chalet. The musical events wrap up Sunday with a luncheon concert at the Pine Creek Cookhouse, a campfire at the Marron Bells and a Mack Bailey solo concert at the Aspen Chapel.
Denver’s photography also is the subject of a show at Anderson Ranch (see the Oct. 9 edition of the Aspen Times Weekly for more on that).
The community that gathers every October in Aspen to celebrate Denver is brought together by his music, yes, but also by the idealistic spirit that Denver embodied. That helps make the annual festivities here more than just another cover band gig, Collins said.
“If people who come here to celebrate John Denver are starry-eyed or dreamy, then I’m glad to be counted among the dreamers,” Collins said, “because it’s a good message.”
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