How do you talk about John Denver to a jazz audience? Even when Denver was at the height of his popularity, there were those that called him "the Mickey Mouse of pop." But it's too easy to sneer at the sentimentality of his work, compare him to Rod McKuen and, self-satisfied, return to the intricacies of improvisation, the lyrics of Cole Porter, or Ella's scat.
Try as you like, though, he won't go away. Denver's long-time manager and friend Harold Thau saw Peter Glazer and Jeff Waxman's wonderful theatre piece Woody Guthrie's American Song and conscripted the talented duo to create Almost Heaven, which is receiving its world premiere at The Stage Theatre.
Henry John Deutschenforf Jr. came to Colorado for the same reasons many of us did—he loved the mountains, the wild, the beauty, and the solitude—and when a friend suggested he change his name to Denver, it seemed perfectly natural to say yes to a city and region at the center of what he called home.
And home was not a concept that came naturally to John Denver. He was raised an Air Force brat, and it seemed that he was always the outsider, never quite belonging. His first break came when he was named to replace Chad Mitchell in the trio, yet his background and beliefs were hardly that of a folksinger. And while his experiences changed him, he remained an outsider, left to write "I Wish I Could Have Been There" about his absence from Woodstock.
Even after his phenomenal success, he was never an insider. Between 1971, when "Take Me Home, Country Roads" made it to second place in the charts (putting Denver up there with the likes of The Partridge Family, Tom Jones, Ike and Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, The Carpenters and The Bee Gees) and it was named the Country Music Association's Song of the Year, and 1975, when he was named Country Music Entertainer of the Year, he became country's biggest-selling recording [having the best selling album in the world in 1974 (Back Home Again)]. Yet he was snubbed at the awards ceremony.
Well, he may be "The Poet of Pastoral Escape," but he's still got quite a following from here to China. Almost Heaven features a septet that can swing and six talented singers with new arrangements to all the favorites, including "Colorado Rocky Mountain High," "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," "For Bobbie," "Annie's Song," "Sunshine On My Shoulders," "Back Home Again," "Take Me Home, Country Roads," and "Leaving on a Jet Plane," (Yeah, that was his first hit, recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary). All this and more is mixed with excerpts from letters from fans, his own musings, and those of his closest friends.
There were a lot of ups and down in John Denver's life and career, most of which are covered in the brief narratives that set off this well arranged and thoughtfully presented overview of his recording career. Almost Heaven runs through April 27th. 303-893-4100.