Steve Weisberg back in Aspen for Tribute to John Denver
ASPEN – Like a good number of people, Steve Weisberg was drawn to Aspen in the 1970s because of John Denver. Unlike most, Weisberg wasn’t drawn by the description of Aspen and Colorado that Denver described in songs like “Starwood in Aspen” and “Rocky Mountain High,” or by the prospect of getting to rub elbows with the singer himself. Weisberg wanted a job – specifically, the job of lead guitarist in Denver’s band.”I came to Aspen in 1972 to let John Denver discover me. Seriously,” Weisberg, a down-home, talkative 61-year-old with dark eyes, gray hair and a thick Texas accent, said this week in the lobby of the Limelight Lodge. “My wife and I decided I needed to try out for the big leagues. We’d been to Aspen skiing in the late ’60s and saw posters – John Denver, Steve Martin, the Dirt Band. Because of the math, with Aspen being such a small town, I figured it was impossible for me to come here and John not discover me. If you were doing something musical, people were going to find out about it.”Weisberg may have had his math right, but his calculation was based on some faulty data. A friend, Nick Illes, had told him two things about John Denver who, in 1972, had one bona fide hit to his name, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The first thing Illes said was that he had just seen Denver perform, in Austin, and it was the greatest concert Illes had ever seen. This got Weisberg’s attention, because he knew Illes to be a rocker, favoring the Doors and Hendrix, not soft country-folk.The second thing Illes told Weisberg was that Denver did not have a lead guitarist. This turned out to be inaccurate; Mike Taylor, who had played the signature licks that open “Country Roads,” played lead guitar for Denver at the time. But that piece of false information opened the door. Weisberg moved from Austin, where he had been studying liberal arts, then business, and playing in a series of cover bands, to Colorado. In Aspen, he hooked up with Alan Garber for a full calendar of weekly shows: “Four aprs-ski gigs at Highlands where nobody listened, and four evening gigs at Jake’s Abbey where nobody talked,” Weisberg, who is back in Aspen to play the 14th annual Tribute to John Denver Concerts, Friday and Saturday, at the Wheeler Opera House, said. “It was a listening room, and if you spoke, the person next to you shushed you.”Not among those who turned up to listen was Denver himself. It didn’t get Weisberg down. “It was naivet, confidence. But it never entered my mind it wasn’t going to work,” he said of his plan to be discovered. A couple who was friends with Garber were regulars, and were also friends of Denver, and eventually the information got passed along. One day Weisberg’s phone rang; Denver was on the other end, with an offer to audition the guitarist when Denver got back from a tour of England.The audition, at Weisberg’s house near Aspen Highlands, was “magical,” as Weisberg recalls. “We stopped and I looked at my watch and said, ‘Oh God, that was three hours we’d been playing.’ We were in that zone. I figured, no question, the job is mine.” In fact, what Weisberg got was a second audition, at Denver’s house, where Weisberg recalls he was auditioning as much for Denver’s wife at the time, Annie, as he was for John; and then a third audition, which seemed to be for the benefit of Denver’s road manager, Kris O’Connor. Weisberg apparently cleared all the bars, and got the job.It turned out to be a dream gig, more, in fact, than Weisberg ever could have dreamed of. Denver’s career was in its initial stage of ascent. In 1974, Denver released “Back Home Again,” with Weisberg on guitar and dulcimer; it became Denver’s first No. 1 album. The following year, Denver released “Windsong” and the live “An Evening With John Denver,” both of which also went to No. 1. Weisberg would play on eight of Denver’s nine platinum albums: “I had John in his richest years,” Weisberg said.••••Weisberg, though, looked at playing with Denver entirely as a career move. He figured he’d use his the exposure he got as a stepping stone to his own band – something more electric, louder, more rocking. What he didn’t anticipate was that he, like a lot of fans, would come to see Denver as more than just a singer.”I expected to meet a very ordinary guy. Because at the time, I didn’t understand his songs,” Weisberg said. “I was young, 22, and a lot of what John was doing went over my head. I valued wit more than warmth, heat more than warmth. But John was the clearest individual I ever met. Totally genuine, totally driven, totally determined to make the impossible happen – a folksinger outselling the Beatles.”Growing up in Dallas, Weisberg’s first musical love was the trombone. It was a total infatuation; Weisberg calls the instrument “the magic carpet,” and he played it in the shower. Then surf music came along, and then Chuck Berry, and the trombone was pushed aside in favor of the guitar. First came an acoustic six-string from a garage sale; then an electric guitar out of a catalog. He wanted to be loud; he wanted to rock like the Beatles; even now, Weisberg says old-school soul with an edge – Sam & Dave, Otis Redding – remains his favorite style.In 1972, just before moving to Aspen, Weisberg started to get a different idea about music. He saw Michael Murphey – not yet known as Michael Martin Murphey – play in an Austin coffeehouse. “It was spellbinding, just playing acoustic guitar,” Weisberg said. “That made me sell the Marshall amps, unplug and realize I’m not destined to be the next Hendrix. Every lead guitarist wanted to be the hottest, but no one wanted to be warm. I thought, I just found my niche in this industry, but I don’t know how to get into it.”Weisberg saw Denver as a way to break into the music business. New York and Los Angeles, the centers of the industry, seemed too crowded with musicians for him to stand out; Aspen was not only tiny, but home to a singer who was beginning to get major recognition.It was a smart career move. When Weisberg started with Denver – part of a band that included Dick Kniss, John Sommers and Hal Blaine – they played for crowds of 5,000 at most. Within two years, they were filling arenas. Weisberg benefited from Denver’s famous generosity toward his band members, traveling first-class, eating in top restaurants. “If you worked for John, you’d take a bullet for him. He treated musicians like family,” he said, echoing a familiar refrain about Denver.In time, Weisberg got attached to the gig: “I figured, after a few years, I’d have my own band. But I realized, this isn’t a gig you quit.” Weisberg was eventually cut loose in 1977, when Denver made a radical shift from a small, folk-leaning group to a big band made up largely of former members of Elvis Presley’s band. “Elvis had the best band money could buy. And John wanted them,” Weisberg said. Weisberg understood the motivation: “I guess John wanted a different sound, a big band. Not this little five-piece any more.” Still, he said parting ways with Denver was crushing. (Weisberg did, however, have the comfort of staying two more years in Aspen, calling his six years here “the longest party I’ve ever been to.” Known around town as the Mad Jammer, for his love of sitting in with other musicians, Weisberg toted two guitars, a dobro, a banjo and steel guitar in his trunk, so he was always prepared to play.)Weisberg found plenty to love about Denver. Weisberg, a fan of great guitarists, thought Denver was in the upper ranks. “Like a freight train. He played acoustic guitar with a sledge hammer beat,” he said. At the same time, Denver’s music has a simplicity and directness. “‘Back Home Again’ – I thought, God, that’s just three chords,” Weisberg said. “It was simple and I didn’t understand simple. I didn’t understand the commonalities in all of us that John understood. That song – if you’re gone and miss being home, that becomes a big deal. I understand that now. Those simple songs, simple emotions, they were perennial.Which gets to the most significant point about Denver, the reason that much of Weisberg’s music career still involves playing John Denver songs for fans around the world. Denver built an extraordinary connection to his audience.”He was not just a folksinger,” Weisberg said. “It was quite evident that what he was singing about became a call to action. He made people want to do something. He made people join the Peace Corps, travel to Africa.”And 14 years after Denver died, when the plane he was flying crashed into California’s Monterey Bay, crowds gather in Aspen to hear Denver’s songs. The main event is the Tribute to John Denver Concerts, featuring Denver’s bandmates and writing partners. This year’s lineup includes Weisberg, who is making his first appearance at the concerts in more than a decade; comedian Gary Mule Deer, who was Denver’s frequent opening act; singer Mack Bailey; saxophonist Jim Horn; banjoist Herb Pedersen; Denny Brooks; and Bill Danoff, who co-wrote the Denver hits “Country Roads” and “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado.” All profits from the concerts will go to Pete Huttlinger, a Denver bandmate who is fighting a severe heart condition.Among the other events, the Windstar Foundation, on Sunday, Oct. 16, presents a day of talks, music and a community lunch.”There’s a part of me that’s astounded that people still want to hear this,” Weisberg said. “But part of me sees it – those songs make people be introspective in the best sense. Not laboriously, but to see the best in themselves.”Years ago, when Denver was playing a concert at Madison Square Garden, a worker at the venue told Weisberg something that startled him.”He said there were only two human beings who walk into this place and get everybody quiet, without exception – Frank Sinatra and John Denver,” Weisberg firstname.lastname@example.org
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