The Wildlife Concert: the best of John Denver

It is strange how you can leave some music or some artist on the shelf for many years, then pick it up again and find yourself so moved. With Google Play’s music service I have been reacquainting myself with these artists I’ve enjoyed but whose repertoire I’ve only mostly only sampled.

One of those pieces of music that I haven’t heard in decades was the Moody Blues very first album, Days of Future Passed. I haven’t heard it in literally decades, except of course for the famous song from the album most of us over thirty have heard: Nights in White Satin. So far, hearing music I listened to in my youth again has been a mixed experience. A lot of it, frankly, didn’t deserve to be heard again. (This includes a lot of Mike Oldfield.) Apparently I had pretty awful taste in music as a teenager but heck, how was I to know better? Days of Future Passed is one of the exceptions. It’s mixture of rock/pop and blended with orchestral interludes was pretty much unique for 1967. Arranger and conductor Peter Knight’s was able to merge and enhance their songs into a seamless story that begins before dawn and ends in the darkness perfectly complements the Moody Blues mostly gentle and heartfelt rock music. Forty-seven years later it’s still a remarkable album. (Simon & Garfunkel’s amazing album Bookends is another truly great album that deserves to be heard by younger generations.)

For the last couple of weeks I have also been listening to John Denver again. I actually wrote about John once before in 2005. Unfortunately, I’ve only got a few of the late artist’s albums and never felt inspired to pick up more albums, mostly because I was busy with things I judged more important. Now with Google Play, I am going through many of them. Mostly though I am stuck on a live concert he gave in 1995, The Wildlife Concert.

John’s relatively abbreviated life would end two years later in 1997 when his experimental aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Pacific Grove. John was in his early fifties when this concert was performed and recorded. The concert is quite remarkable. Was his singing any better than in the early 1970s when his career first took off? Not really, but his singing in this album feels more heartfelt, if that’s possible, from a man who openly wore his heart and soul on his sleeve and dared to be human rather than a stereotype. There is playfulness in much of John’s music, but in this concert, some twenty years after producing his major hits, we get a John that is more introspective, more real than surreal (his higher register voice can be startling if you haven’t heard him) but somehow even more deeply human. The effect, at least for me, was to feel like I heard John Denver performing at likely his very best.

For me about a third of the music was new. Most of his popular tunes are performed live in the concert, but it’s the newer songs that grabs your ears and pull at your heart and which in some ways are much better than his better known songs. Some are exquisitely beautiful. I am talking about songs like “A song for all lovers”, “Darcy Farrow” and “Wild Montana Skies”.

But it’s more than that. This concert feels more intimate and it sounds much better than his previous live albums. The accompanists include an excellent bass player, a saxophonist and a flutist. They frankly make for a better live experience than other live concerts of his that I have heard.

When I finished the concert recording, I felt more than a little dumbstruck. Quite frankly, I was all teared up. Moreover, I felt a profound sense of loss that we lost him too soon.

In one of his songs, John says, “It turns me on to think of growing old.” I wish he had the opportunity to do so. I wonder how much better he would have gotten with another twenty years to perform. I feel grateful to be able to listen to his music seventeen years after he was taken from us, for hearing him perform again is joyful and deeply moving. But knowing that there simply is no more, that is something to truly grieve over.

You can listen to lots of musical artists. I will bet that you will be unable to find a singer more heartfelt and sincere than the late John Denver.

Pick up the album or give it a spin on the music service of your choice. The concert is also available as a DVD, which I may pick up. It is John Denver at I suspect his very best and his most authentic. It’s a truly great performance.

The Wonderful World According to John Denver

I keep adding to my list of men who are often scorned or lampooned but that I wholeheartedly admire. I could make this entry about the late Mister Rogers. I will save my tribute to him for another day. Today I will save my praise of dead people for the late singer and songwriter John Denver.

Yep, I shamelessly admire the Rocky Mountain High man himself. I know his voice is an octave or two too high for many people. I know many people thought much of his music was sophomoric and trite. To many he seemed goofy.

They miss the point of John Denver. John Denver was the 20th century’s most authentic human being. He had his travails in life (such as his painful divorce from his wife Annie) like we all do. Nevertheless, John seemed hardwired into the joy and ecstasy of life.

John taught us a wonderful lesson: life is truly beautiful. Suck the marrow out it. Revel in its robustness. Marvel at its complexity and weirdness. Let life fill you to the brim. Let its overflow cascade onto the people around you. John was pro-life in the best sense of the word. His message was to be reckless with embracing your life. Take all of life in. Just like waves crashing on a beach endlessly sift through the sand, let its fullness and reality surge endlessly through you. In John Denver’s world, life was the ultimate adventure movie. Indeed life, even the ordinary life was far more fulfilling than any movie could possibly be. In the world according to John, all you have to do is fully embrace it to experience your authenticity.

As an artist, John brought the joy that he felt in living gloriously alive in his music. To me his spirit was infectious. He asked you to hang up that ragged coat of your own perceptions. He wanted you to open the shutters to your life, face the sun, feel the wind on your face, hear the cacophony of nature around you and revel in it al. You are to accept life as a glorious mystery. Your mission when listening to his music is to let down your shields and let his music infect you. Then perhaps you will experience it too. If you do then you may find yourself transformed, at least for a few moments. You may feel again the same exhilaration we all felt as infants when life was forever and the possibilities were infinite.

John’s interests were not limited just to music. He was passionate about many things including the manned space program, equal rights, ending racism and world hunger, photography and philanthropy. As you probably know, John died in 1997 at age 54. An experimental plane he was flying alone failed. It reportedly dropped like a stone into Monterey Bay. I am sure John was one of the last people who would want to check out of life prematurely. However, perhaps he had drawn too deeply from the well of life. Perhaps the gods were upset that one human being could draw so much meaning from one life in so short a time.

For me the antidote to a down day is to listen to a John Denver album. Invariably I can snap out of it. At least for a little while I am full of the promise and mystery of life once again.

John’s philosophy of life is succinctly summed up from a couple lines from Sweet Surrender:

Sweet, sweet surrender, live, live without care
Like a fish in the water, like a bird in the air.

Godspeed, John. And thanks.