John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert
at American Music Theatre,
Lancaster, Pa. (9 February 2013)

Part of me died when John Denver's plane dropped into Monterey Bay on Columbus Day weekend, 1997. I count this man as a major influence in my life. I never imagined a day without him being alive and breathing on the planet.

By the time of the accident, I had been a John Denver fan for more than 24 years, beginning with the day I first heard the song "Rocky Mountain High" in 1973. Both his music and his love of nature resounded with me, and those dual passions flowed through every fiber of my being. I bought every John Denver record album (and many cassettes, and a few CDs). I saw him in concert numerous times. I learned how to play the guitar and to perform his songs. I joined his environmental group, the Windstar Foundation, and attended three of its conferences in Aspen, Colo. I wrote an article for the Windstar newsletter and managed an online group listserv. I shook hands with John twice; and was this close (thumb and forefinger smashed together) to square dancing with him in the Aspen Music Tent in 1995. One of my most treasured possessions is a photo of me standing next to John, with our arms around each other. It's a typical and posed fan shot. He didn't know me, and it didn't matter. At least I had a chance to thank him in person before he was gone.

It's been 15 years since that awful news came from the California coast. John would otherwise be turning 70 at the end of this year. It is certainly past time to revisit the man and his music. That's the aim of the "John Denver Concert Experience." Through the marvels of digital technology, John can still perform with familiar band members and can entertain appreciative audiences. While he appears only on the big screen, his fellow musicians stand before him, live onstage. Everything is timed as perfectly as a standard concert would be.

As much as I love John, I had my qualms about "seeing" him again. I've done my best to avoid his music since the accident. The albums sit on a dusty shelf. The guitar stays locked in its case. The loss is still too painful. The memories are still too fresh. Even chance encounters with his melodies -- most often, as I walk down a grocery store aisle -- can quicken my pulse and can cause tears to fall. How would I be able to endure a whole evening of such emotion? Nevertheless, I knew I had to go. I armed myself with a stack of Kleenex and warned everyone around me that the waterworks would soon follow.

I shouldn't have worried so much. Yes, my face was wet most of the time. But this night was an opportunity to focus not on what we'd lost, but instead on what John had given us through the years. I wasn't the only one in the crowd who shared both tears and laughter this evening.

First, the setup. The big screen at the rear of the stage commanded our attention. That's where we saw and heard John talking about himself, his songs, his love of nature and his causes. We watched him ski down mountainsides, ride on horseback and play tag with an eagle in flight from an airplane cockpit. We heard about John from his friends Tom Crum, Bill Danoff and Richard Ballard. We saw the bronze John-with-eagle statue that was installed on the Windstar property in 2002. Musical footage came from The Wildlife Concert (1995) and from several other historic performances. When John played and sang, our live musicians followed his lead, just as closely as if he was standing among them. The demands of synchronizing such a production boggle the mind.

The band was made up of Chris Nole (piano), Alan Deremo (bass guitar), Nate Barnes (drums and percussion), Jim Horn (flute and saxophone) and Jim Salestrom (guitar and stage spokesman). They were accompanied off and on by a quartet of female string players (whose names I didn't catch; and whose instruments, unfortunately, couldn't be heard, on the rare selections that included them). All of the band members but young Nate had played with John Denver. They could offer personal stories about touring and performing with him. The inside scoops we got between tunes were icing on the cake.

Together, John and his musicians presented examples of the best songs of his catalogue: "Welcome to My Morning," "Follow Me," "Back Home Again," "The Eagle & the Hawk," "Sunshine on My Shoulders," "Annie's Song," "Poems, Prayers & Promises," "Calypso," "This Old Guitar" and "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." The band picked out the instrumental "Late Winter, Early Spring (When Everybody Goes to Mexico)" from the "Season Suite" on Rocky Mountain High, while John narrated a basic summary of his life. The group played "Ponies" on its own. Written by Jeffrey Hawthorne Bullock and found on John's Different Directions album, this tune was a surprise choice to include in the first set. Presented here with scenes of John riding with a horse roundup in the snowy American West, the decision made perfect sense. The band also covered the Buddy Holly song, "Every Day," as Jim Salestrom reminisced about John's guitar tuning advice. Savvy pickers will understand what JD song Jim could have mentioned here; one that requires the first string to be tuned to D instead of E. Jim Horn's flute work was stellar on "The Eagle & the Hawk." We also heard John recite his "Peace Poem." Its words are even more relevant today.

After a 20-minute intermission, Chris Nole returned to the stage alone. His poignant rendition of "For You" eventually spanned the full extent of that grand-piano keyboard. The simple melody became graceful, flamboyant and marvelous, all at once. When John seamlessly joined in halfway through the song, the effect was nothing short of magnificent. This selection got well-deserved cheers from the crowd. It is easily John's most powerful ballad, and Chris somehow made it even better.

It was followed by about another hour of music, with "A Song for All Lovers," "Rhymes & Reasons," "You Say that the Battle is Over," "Grandma's Feather Bed," "Matthew," "Druthers" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads." The band did "Downhill Stuff" as we watched John ski around Colorado. The musicians also paid a tribute to Jim Horn's longevity in the industry by doing a cover of Canned Heat's 1969 hit, "Going Up to Country." Yup, that was Jim's flute solo at the beginning of that number, way back when. He still plays it great.

Alas. We can be forced to suspend our disbelief for only so long. The encore brought us back to reality. It began with John reciting the lyrics to "On the Wings of a Dream." Written after the death of his Air-Force-veteran father, the verses convey John's misery at his loss. "And in truth you must know I would rather / He were here by my side. / We could fly on the wings of a dream / To a place where the spirit could find us / And joy and surrender would bind us." The song also includes those famous and prescient words, "Though the singer is silent / There still is the truth of the song." Egad. Do I have enough tissues?

From that ominous line, we went back to the beginning of it all in 1969, to John's first hit as a songwriter, "Leaving on a Jet Plane." Unspoken was the bold fact that John Denver's professional career began and ended with the image of an airplane. More tissues, please.

But even as the applause reigned for this classic, each band member was holding up a single forefinger, saying "Just one more." Well, naturally there had to be one more song. And it was obvious which one it had to be. And the intro to "Rocky Mountain High" set me off again. Is it possible to be thoroughly thrilled and heartbroken at the same time? I think it is.

If the John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert entourage comes to your area, you should not miss its performance. If you recognize half of the song titles mentioned above, you should get a ticket to the show. Even non-avid fans should see it as an interesting creative project that has been transformed into an outstanding and professional production. Hats off to John Denver's children and his estate for encouraging this work and for contributing the footage. Perhaps they'll also consider crafting a Christmas version of the show, complete with Muppets. People would come.

Promoters were also advertising a recording due out in April 2013: The Music is You: A Tribute to John Denver. Sixteen artists will provide new covers of John Denver's songs. See more information at

If you're missing John Denver, and you're unable to see this concert, you can do what I did one day back in the 1970s. My parents wouldn't let me run off to Philadelphia to see John in person. So I put the An Evening with John Denver album on the stereo, closed my eyes and pretended I was sitting in that audience. The CD or the video of The Wildlife Concert would work fine, too. Be sure to have a box of tissues on hand as well.

As for me: I loved the concert, and I survived it. But seeing John and hearing him talk and sing made me realize that I miss him more than ever before. It's not just about hearing his music. It's about listening to him talk about nature and the things he cared most about. I miss the annual drives out to Colorado and its mountains, too. Maybe it's time for me to lift the embargo and to start listening to the old albums again. Maybe it's time to plan for that long-overdue pilgrimage out to Monterey. Can closure be far behind?

by Corinne H. Smith
16 February 2013

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