John Denver was many things during his lifetime: an environmentalist, a humanitarian associated with numerous charitable causes and one of Colorado's most beloved sons. Setting aside all of his personal pursuits, it is safe to say that his fans will always remember him as one of the most popular folk singers of the 1970s. Over an amazingly prolific 35 year long career, Denver released 29 studio albums which generated 44 singles of which 12 shot to the top spot. He enjoyed most of his mainstream success during the 1970s and early 1980s before slowing down during his later years to focus on causes close to his heart. During the peak of his popularity, he toured Japan to perform 7 concerts in 1981. This show was the first of those concerts recorded at the NHK hall in Tokyo on May, 14th 1981. It captures Denver performing his biggest hits with assistance from his large backing band.
As the show starts, we are greeted by the sight of Denver walking out on to the stage and welcoming his audience in Japanese. His demeanor is one of joyful respect, with good reason, considering there are members of the Japanese royal family in the audience. Although Denver was in the process of releasing his 'Some Days Are Diamonds' album at the time of the show, the concert really comes off as a greatest hits set. The 18 song set list covers all his popular singles and is as follows:
Although I wasn't intimately familiar with all of Denver's set, one thing was abundantly clear as soon as he started singing. Vocally he was in unquestionably fine form. His gentle, soothing voice paired with his command of the acoustic guitar proves to be the perfect platform for conveying his themes of country life and Americana. This roots-y approach helped me connect with some songs that I had never heard and gave me a new appreciation for songs that I had heard countless times before. Although there were many standouts during the show, I would like to comment on a particular 3 song run almost smack dab in the middle of the show. Denver describes 'Matthew' as being a song about his family and launches into an intimate ditty. After that, he moves on to 'Fly Away' which turns into a duet with the capable vocals of his backup singer, Renee Armand. Of course the only way to top this was with 'Dancing With The Mountains' which features the entire band cutting loose and creating one of the higher energy moments of the night. Matching this energy level is 'Thank God, I'm a Country Boy' which threatens to practically turn into a hoedown.
I've already mentioned a few of the memorable performances of the night but there were 3 songs that perfectly summed up the show for me. Early in the show, I was struck by the poignant performance of 'Leaving on a Jet Plane', a song penned by Denver but first made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary. Given the unfortunate nature of Denver's demise in 1997 in a plane accident, the song's wistful lyrics became chillingly eerie in their foreshadowing of his fate. John did save one of his biggest hits, 'Rocky Mountain High' for the second half of the show. If there were any doubts about how loved this song truly is, it is worth noting that in 2007 the Colorado senate passed a resolution making the tune one of the state's official songs. Denver performs the song like the signature tune that it is and makes it one of the highlights of the concert. The final song I'd like to mention is one that holds special meaning to me. 'Annie's Song' is a tune that I identify with my wife and our courtship. I've long considered this song to be unabashedly romantic while never devolving into cloying saccharine mush. Denver's performance of this beautiful song was appropriately delicate.
Given the age of this performance and genre of music involved, the simple stage setup and unassuming production values should come as no surprise. Denver is backed by a fairly large 9 person strong backing band consisting of Hal Blaine (drums, percussion), Herb Petersen (guitar, vocals), James Burton (guitar), Chuck Fiore (bass), Jim Horn (sax, flute), Glen Hardin (piano), Danny Wheatman (guitar, fiddle, vocals), Renee Armand (vocals) and Denny Brooks (guitar, vocals). Behind the band, a projection screen presents images that tie into the themes covered by Denver's songs. The filming style for the entire concert is appropriately low key but features a varied shot selection including many long shots of the entire stage with numerous close-ups of John mixed in. There are very few shots of the audience which may be due to the fact that they were too subdued and laid-back as mentioned by Lowell Norman's essay in the DVD insert. Coupled with the language barrier, this seems to catch Denver off guard as a slight awkwardness creeps in during his few humorous exchanges with the crowd. I don't mean to give the impression that the crowd wasn't digging Denver's music. It's just that their adoration was of the more 'quiet' variety.