John Denver’s bandmates in Aspen, doin’ their thing
October 7, 2009
ASPEN – For 12 years, musicians and songwriters associated with John Denver have gathered in Aspen for a few mid-October days to celebrate the late folk icon’s life by singing his songs.
Those tribute concerts have become a strong magnet for the faithful, who come from around the world to the Wheeler Opera House to hear “Rocky Mountain High” and “Annie’s Song” sung by artists who played those tunes shoulder-to-shoulder with Denver. Along the way, those fans have come to know the likes of Bill Danoff, the co-writer of “Take Me Home, Country Roads”; Denny Brooks, Denver’s friend from the coffeehouse days who became a bandmate for a decade; and Aspenite John Sommers, who wrote “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and played in Denver’s band during the glory days of the ’70s.
Over those dozen years, it probably occurred to the fans that these musicians had something in their repertoires other than John Denver songs. It certainly has been on the minds of the musicians themselves. After a bunch of years of doing just Denver songs, they are ready to show the fans what else they have in their arsenal.
Doin’ Their Own Thing, which has its debut Thursday at the Wheeler, features the core cast from the Tribute to John Denver Concerts playing their own music. The show features Mack Bailey, Alan Deremo, Pete Huttlinger, Chris Nole, Herb Pedersen, Kenn Roberts, Jim Salestrom, Mollie Weaver and Gary Mule Deer, plus Danoff, Brooks and Sommers.
“We’ve been kicking this around for four, five years,” said Nole, the singer-keyboardist who serves as music director for Thursday’s concert, as well as the Tribute to John Denver Concerts on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 9-10 at the Wheeler. “We have this huge cast of talented people who do other music all year long: Can we sneak this in somehow?”
The songs come from various places: Danoff will sing tunes from his new album (titled after another song of his that Denver recorded, “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado.”) Bailey will be joined by his wife, Aspen product Rachel Levy, in “It’s Time,” from their new CD, “White.” Nole will play the traditional blues “Alberta, Alberta,” that he recorded for his “Little Rum Boogie” album. Pedersen is set to play his song “Wait a Minute,” which was recorded by country star Alan Jackson. At least one song should be just as recognizable as any Denver hit: Horn will lead the group in a version of “Goin’ Up the Country,” a 1968 hit for Canned Hit that prominently featured Horn’s flute solo.
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Nole acknowledges that Doin’ Their Own Thing won’t be an instant crowd-pleaser on par with the Denver tribute concerts. But he says that Denver’s fans have, over 12 years of tribute performances, cultivated an interest in the musicians and their careers. Moreover, the concert should deliver a similar spirit of the community that Denver left after his 1997 death, when his plane crashed into California’s Monterey Bay.
“The beauty is, John brought this whole group together,” said Nole, who left his gig with Faith Hill in 1994 to join Denver’s band. “Including the fans. When I toured with John, you never stayed in place long enough to get to know anyone. But because of these tribute concerts, we’ve gotten to see people in the street, get to know them.”
Nole says that the atmosphere at the Denver tribute concerts has changed over the years. The first year, when there were concerts in Maryland and Aspen, “It was very fresh,” he said. “We’d just lost John and the emotions were running high. The shows were filled with a lot of angst, and the question: What’s going to happen to John’s music? Then it became more about the songs, creating a good time in the hall. You can still people in tears. But people are here to hear some good John Denver music.”
And now they can hear what the musicians play when they’re not paying tribute to their former bandleader.
“I think everybody’s going, ‘Finally!'” said Nole.