Decades after the shocking demise of ubiquitous TV, film [e.g. trading barbs with cigar-chomping comedy icon George Burns in Oh, God!], and Hot 100 entertainer John Denver, fans can experience the beloved Colorado poet laureate onstage via video. Taking its cue from the innovative “Elvis: The Concert” — which coincidentally debuted the same year as Denver’s 1997 passing to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death — “The Official John Denver Celebration Concert” is sanctioned by Denver’s estate. Previously known as “John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert,” the multimedia visual experience combines Denver road band alums with archival concert footage. Taken from the past 50 years — a notable chunk derives from the singer’s mid-’80s world tour of Japan and England along with his celebrated 1995 Wildlife Concert — the archival footage eliminates nearly all sounds except Denver’s voice and acoustic guitar.
The live quintet features the renowned Jim Horn on saxophone and woodwinds [with Denver from 1978–1995; also played on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh], bassist Alan Deremo [1994–1997; e.g. Jimmy Buffett and Colin Hay], pianist-backing vocalist Chris Nole [1994–1997; e.g. the Oak Ridge Boys, Emmylou Harris, Don Williams, and Buffett], master of ceremonies-guitarist-singer Jim Curry [provided Denver’s vocals in the CBS TV movie Take Me Home: The John Denver Story], and newcomer Nate Barnes of hard rock trio Rose Hill Drive on drums. They bring Denver’s ’70s oeuvre, which would be considered country these days, to life in startling fashion and provide running commentary of their years spent with the musician throughout the two and a half hour show. A string section adds further authenticity.
A month-long jaunt targeting the USA’s East Coast in February 2013 served as the Celebration Concert’s grand debut. After a five-city Florida run later that November, the production virtually entered hibernation until a couple of warm-up East Coast gigs signaled an international eight-city Australian pilgrimage in December 2018. It is the closest thing to actually seeing the “Annie’s Song” balladeer in a live setting…unless you prefer tribute artists or slightly unsettling holograms à la Roy Orbison.
In a series of email exchanges Nole exclusively divulged whether he was initially apprehensive about accompanying a deceased artist and what to expect on any given night. “When I was first asked to take part in the Celebration Concert I was certainly intrigued with the idea,” said Nole. “I had the experience of performing onstage with John, and I knew there would be some similarities. My main concern was the technical logistics and the show form. It definitely took some rehearsing and experimenting with the set list and banter, but after the band and crew did some fine tuning, things came together very well.
“The Celebration Concert pretty much includes many of the John Denver hits that people know and love — along with a few surprises. The set list has been fine tuned due to the many options that we have with John’s video/audio performances and the live songs that the band performs throughout the show. Another factor that now affects our set list is either the live string section or symphony orchestra that accompany many of the songs. The song selections have gone through various changes since 2013, but what we are doing now is probably the best presentation thus far.” As Denver would probably exult in his inimitable way, “Far out!”
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Further Reading: John Denver will forever be remembered as a consummate multi-hyphenate artist. The radio friendly, environmentally conscious entertainer possesses an incredible body of work. “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” “Back Home Again,” “Rocky Mountain High,” “Annie’s Song,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” “I’m Sorry,” and “Calypso” are all staples of early ’70s AM radio. In “Chris Nole Applauds Masterful Troubadour John Denver 20 Years After His Death,” the keyboardist and frequent Don Williams sideman sheds light on joining Denver’s band, having a single rehearsal and then debuting in front of thousands of fans, Denver’s homespun sense of humor, whether the singer had any pre-show superstitions, their final conversation, and much more.
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