John Denver fans -- and let's be clear, that accounted for pretty much everyone in the building, save for perhaps the odd service employee -- got their money's worth last night at 1STBANK Center, even if the best performance of the evening came from Denver himself from nearly two decades ago.
The night began with the Boulder Philharmonic orchestra offering up a stirring John Denver overture, setting the ideal tone for the entire evening, which was imbued with a stately elegance and deliberately paced with the measured precision of a televised event, like something you might see on PBS. To that end, there were certain production cues, that, while they might lend themselves to making great television, became wearisome after a while.
At various points during the performance or during designated speaking parts, the front of the house was dimly illuminated while several camera men roamed the edges of the crowd, presumably looking for money shots of collective and individual reactions of the audience members. So rather than being able to sit back and bask in the overall reverie of the evening, you were periodically distracted by the intermittent blinding flashes of light.
If the production had any shortcomings, that was it. Aside from a few missed cues on host Olivia Newton-John's part, everything else about the entire affair was meticulously executed. And with the exception of John Oates, who turned in an inexplicably neutered, diet-jazz worthy version of "Leaving On a Jet Plane," all of the performers did their best to deliver renditions that maintained the essence of the originals, which despite the undeniable earnestness of those paying tribute, proved vastly superior.
The reason that the singer's songs were so resonant in the first place, clearly had as much to do with Denver's voice and delivery as the relatability of the compositions themselves. Of all the night's performers, Lee Ann Womack offered up the most noteworthy performance during the second half of the show with a stirring version of "Sunshine On My Shoulders." Other highlights included Trace Bundy's instrumental take on "Late Winter Early Spring (When Everybody Goes to Mexico)," Nathaniel Rateliff and Eric Johnson of the Fruit Bats trading vocals on "Poems, Prayers, Promises," Michael Martin Murphey and Steve Weisberg on "Boy from the Country," and pretty much any song the Boulder Philharmonic performed on.
There's no question that John Denver touched a great many lives. You could see it in the smiling faces of the people in the crowd and hear it in the voices of everyone who spoke about him. From the luminaries who gave speeches at the beginning of the show to the parade of folks who followed, friends, fellow activists and admirers, it was clear that the one thing everyone had in common was that they were all fans, including host Olivia Newton-John, a close friend of Denver and his family. And they all gave heartfelt testimonials, some nodding to his exceptional songwriting prowess, others pointing to his groundbreaking environmentalism efforts,noting how ahead of his time Denver was and how fitting it was that his life was being celebrated on Earth Day.
At the beginning of the show, as Denver became the first official inductee into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, Congressman Jared Polis reflected about growing up in a household where Denver's music flowed freely and then joked about how hard it was to be a Denver fan in high school. He was followed by newly elected Governor John Hickenlooper, who after offering up his now customary "politics is Hollywood for ugly people" quip, presented a plaque to the late singer's three surviving children. (Denver Mayor Guillermo Vidal accepted a plaque on behalf of the city of Denver for Red Rocks, the night's other inductee.)
A little more than half way into the production came a twenty minute intermission, which gave folks ample time to wander out into the concourse to peruse the Hall of Fame exhibits, which, at this point, are understandably modest and mainly consist of a pair of oversized shadow boxes flanking the ticket window.
The boxes are filled with the type of miscellaneous memorabilia you'd expect to find at your neighborhood Hard Rock Cafe -- sheet music for some of Denver's songs, a tour jacket and a rhinestone-encrusted denim outfit that was probably even ill-advised when the singer first donned it, a platinum plaque, an acoustic guitar and a framed, signed photo of Jaques Cousteau, among other things.
The more interesting artifacts were actually down the hall, spread out on a table with tray cards identifying each of the mementos. Among the various items: a copy of Denver's high school yearbook, a pair of red running shoes, a guitar strap, backstage passes, his leather hat and his "signature granny glasses."
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Although there was an unmistakable air of reverence to the entire proceedings, there were only a few moments that were geniunely poignant. The most moving of which, without question, was when Denver's two wives paid tribute to him. Before his second wife, Cassandra Delaney Denver, sang "Whispering Jesse," she recounted the story of Denver waking in the middle of the night and then going out to the lake at their cabin in his pajamas with his guitar and writing the song.
And then few songs later, Annie Martell, Denver's first wife, took the stage near the end, after Denver beamed in from 1995 with a lovely rendition of "Annie's Song," taken from his Wildlife Conservation Society performance. Stripped of the backing instrumentation from that clip, here he was accompanied elegantly by the Boulder Philharmonic. Choking back tears, Martell talked about how beautiful her late ex-husband was and how touched she was by the whole gathering, as she related how Denver wrote the song in twenty minutes on a chair lift in Aspen.
The show concluded in the most celebratory and appropriate way imaginable with all of the evening's performers gathered on the stage for an ensemble rendition of Denver's most iconic and celebrated song, "Rocky Mountain High," which also happens to be our state song.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: Although I'm not the biggest John Denver fan, I have to admit I have a undeniable soft spot for more than a few of his songs. By the Way: A significant amount of the crowd was made up of baby boomers who undoubtedly grew up listening to the music of Denver. Also, HDNet's logos were apparently prominently displayed on large cameras near the soundboard. Perhaps footage from the event will subsequently surface online or on DVD? Random Detail: In the upstairs concourse just across from of the Hall of Fame Bar sits the Wall of Fame containing photos of Richie Furray, the Astronauts, Flash Cadillac, Firefall, Joe Walsh, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Stephen Stills, Harry Tuft, Judy Collins, Phillip Bailey, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, the Fray, String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, Caribou Ranch, Glenn Miller, Barry Fey, Sugar Loaf and Tommy Bolin, among others.