Chris Collins, Jim Salestrom and the 2018 John Denver Celebration in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Chris Collins, Jim Salestrom and the 2018 John Denver Celebration in Aspen

It's John Denver week in Aspen and as the man in the granny glasses himself put it, "Hey, it's good to be back home again."

The 21st annual tribute to the Aspen icon, folk singer, environmentalist and peace activist brings together fans and friends from around the globe for events ranging from free and intimate sing-alongs to a high-production cover concert at the Wheeler Opera House by Chris Collins and Boulder Canyon.

Festivities opened Wednesday and run through the weekend.

Collins will perform his Denver tribute at the Wheeler on Saturday night, in a multimedia presentation that includes big-screen video of John Denver with sights from around the world.

"Audiences can expect a John Denver experience with his music and the places that he loved as a background," Collins said in a recent interview.

On Friday night, in place of what's usually a concert slot, the celebration is screening John Denver's 1977 film "Oh, God!" Co-starring George Burns and directed by Carl Reiner, it is a spiritual comedy in which God (Burns) chooses a Pacer-driving supermarket manager (Denver) as a sort of messiah. A massive hit released at the height of Denver's global fame, it sparked two sequels.

"The 'Oh, God!' movie exemplifies John Denver's message," Collins said. "A lot of people look to God to fix everything, whereas in the movie God comes to John Denver and says, 'No! I gave you all to tools to fix everything that's wrong. You go out and do it.'"

Collins believes the film, wrapped in a comedic package, hammers home the activist message of love, peace and conservation that underlies all of John Denver's music.

"More than ever, today we need to spread that message," Collins said. "Everyone sends thoughts and prayers to gun victims and nothing ever happens. It's not up to God, it's up to us. And the same is true of the environment, human rights and many other things."

This Texas-bred singer, who looks a lot like Denver and styles his hair and eyewear to accentuate the resemblance, has been a staple at the annual celebration here in most years since 2003. His concerts have often been the centerpiece of the festivities, with a mix of anthems like "Annie's Song" and "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" alongside deeper cuts.

Collins and his band tours across North America with his John Denver tribute show. In the past few years, he said, he's seen demand and crowds grow, regularly selling out in the U.S. and Canada. He believes old fans and a new generation of listeners are gravitating toward Denver's positive message in this bitterly divided and tumultuous time.

"Because of the political and social climate, people are looking for something to hold onto for stability," Collins said. "And John's music has always been that."

The 2018 gathering also includes intimate performances by Jim Salestrom, an Arvada-based singer and songwriter who performed and recorded with Denver, at the Limelight Hotel.

Salestrom met John Denver in 1972, when he was engineering sound at Red Rocks Ampitheatre. The pair became fast friends and Salestrom contributed vocals and banjo on Denver's 1991 album "Different Directions." When the state of Colorado officially adopted "Rocky Mountain High" as the state song in 2007, Gov. Bill Ritter tapped Salestrom to perform it at the state capital in Denver.

Salestrom will share stories of his time with Denver and will perform two concerts today. He's using the proceeds to donate six ukuleles to Aspen Elementary School.

"Ukes are more popular in schools than ever before," he said in an email. "It's a great way to learn how to play the guitar."

While the Collins and Salestrom shows are high points, the lineup of events is notably thinner for 2018 than last year and most previous celebrations, when concerts and gatherings have run from morning to late at night for four days. Former John Denver collaborators and bandmates including Jim Horn and Bill Danoff are not participating this year, nor is their group of a dozen former bandmates who have headlined in previous iterations of the John Denver Celebration.

Mark Johnson, the local producer whose Strut Productions has organized some of the bigger reunion concerts during the John Denver Celebration, also isn't involved this year.

After last year's 20th anniversary celebration, which drew an international pilgrimage estimated at 1,500 to 1,800 out-of-town guests, this year's crowd attendance is expected to be a fraction of the 2017 audience.

Johnson said he and former Denver bandmates are stepping away because of the cost of producing these shows and the expected smaller crowds.

"The expenses just don't add up when the year looks like it's not going to be well-attended," he said. "All good things need a rest or a pause."

He and others said they expect the John Denver Celebration to be a smaller and more intimate affair for the next several years, with another big one coming in 2022 as the Denver faithful gather for the 25th anniversary year.

"This being a non-five-year event, I think the audience will be smaller," Collins said. "A lot of people came last year and spent their vacation money on that and people are recovering from the expenditure."

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In the years following John Denver's death in a plane crash in 1997, his 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 dayslong celebration of his life and work. But the celebration remained a decentralized gathering, with events growing organically out of the interest of Denver fans, friends and collaborators.

Last year, the Dillon-based Rocky Mountain Foundation for the Performing Arts ruffled feathers by coming in, booking shows and attempting to claim ownership of the festival. The organization is not returning this year. Its executives have not returned repeated requests for interviews since September 2017.

Collins said this odd power struggle over the John Denver Celebration was unfortunate, if unsurprising.

"It seems with John Denver there's always been a struggle of some sort going on, with people wanting to be closest to center," he said. "But I think that's the music business in general. … As far as the John Denver friends and family and this community, I think everybody is OK with everybody else. So, no harm done."

atravers@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO …

Who: Chris Collins and Boulder Canyon Tribute to John Denver

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Saturday, Oct. 13, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $40-$60

Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com

More info: johndenvercelebration.com

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JOHN DENVER CELEBRATION

FRIDAY, OCT. 12

4 p.m. Dave Stratford in Concert, Mountain Chalet

5 p.m. Jim Salestrom Remembers John Denver, Limelight Hotel

7:30 p.m. ‘Oh, God!’ Movie Night, Wheeler Opera House

9:30 p.m. Jim Salestrom Remembers John Denver, Limelight Hotel

SATURDAY, OCT. 13

4 p.m. Aspen Meadow Band, Limelight Hotel

7:30 p.m. Chris Collins and Boulder Canyon, Wheeler Opera House

SUNDAY, OCT. 14

11 a.m. Pine Creek Cookhouse Luncheon and Concert

MONDAY, OCT. 15

10 a.m. Good Bye Again, Wagner Park