There are some albums you can just listen to over and over. We all have our preferences. John Denver: The Wildlife Concert is one of mine. With 28 tracks, it’s more comprehensive than most of his greatest hits compilations, particularly since it was recorded at the tail end of his career (i.e. life). Moreover, it affords the listener the excitement of a live experience. This is accentuated when you actually watch the concert, but that’s not very handy for long car trips, and besides the audio version contains several more songs than the DVD. Without further ado…
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1. Rocky Mountain High - Great way to start things off. One of his most famous songs, it is essentially a description of how John found his life’s calling. Perhaps it’s not wholly autobiographical, but there’s certainly a lot of him in there, and we’re awfully fortunate that his calling involved sharing that high with the rest of us. I don’t know if I’m ever going to make it to the peaks of the Rockies, but I feel as if I’ve already been there. Exuberant, sincere, and it contains the great lyric “You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply.”
* 2. Rhymes & Reasons - This one is odd because I’m pretty sure the first time I heard it was on an Irish Rovers album. I’m actually prejudiced in favor of their version, which is drenched in natural sound effects, but John performs it beautifully. It strikes me as a very hippie-ish sort of song, bringing to mind images of flower children. Come on, children, flowers, sisters, brothers… doesn’t that sound just a bit like the Summer of Love? Anyway, it’s a gentle, idealistic song that John once identified as the best he’d written. Oddly enough, melodically speaking, it bears a striking resemblance to the Paul Stookey song There Is Love. I think they were written within a few years of each other, but I can’t say whether the similarity is a coincidence or the result of influence. Certainly these two artists were well aware of one another.
3. Country Roads - Another big hit for John. When I went on a road trip with my family recently, we played the game of trying to spot a license plate from every state. I was in charge of writing down what we found, and when we spotted our first West Virginia plate, what I wrote on the paper was “Almost Heaven.” My brother wanted to clobber me for my silliness – especially since he is not especially fond of that particular state. What little I’ve seen of it seems consistent with John’s ode, though. I actually first became familiar with this song in music class in elementary school. I leafed through our music book early in the year and saw that John Denver was in there, so I spent half the year looking forward to the eventuality of us singing a song written by my much-maligned favorite singer. I would be in my glory, and there would be nothing the rest of my class could do about it! Mwa ha ha! Yeah, the inability of my peers to appreciate my musical tastes was a source of much frustration for me growing up…
4. Back Home Again - This one’s just so sweet, and it makes us believe that John actually wanted to return home to his increasingly isolated wife. Other songs call this notion into question, but I’ve no doubt he loved Annie. He just couldn’t find the right balance. Poor guy. At any rate, I like to think these were very happy, loving reunions, especially early on, before Annie realized the man she married was more devoted to what he perceived as his mission than to her.
5. I Guess He'd Rather Be In Colorado - I guess I would too. This is a sad song, yet it makes me chuckle because John shares the title of my favorite musician with Simon and Garfunkel. Oh the irony of John royally dissing that beloved duo’s home base. No, he didn’t write the song, but he meant it. And much as I love those boys from Queens, I agree with him.
* 6. Matthew - I’m a sucker for a tribute, though I’m a bit curious as to why John changed the name of the person for whom the song was written. Was it simply that “Dean” contained fewer syllables than John needed for the sake of his lyrics? At any rate, it’s a nice, energetic ode to a man who died too young but left an indelible mark on his talented nephew, who inherited his sense of joy.
7. Sunshine On My Shoulders - I would guess that this is my mom’s favorite song of John’s. When they were dating, Dad gave her a photograph he’d taken of her with the words to this song inscribed on the back. Awwww. A sweet, sunny song that sails along on a smooth saxophone solo. Incidentally, the lullaby Farmer Hoggett sings to Babe in that magnificent film about the sheep-herding pig reminds me a lot of this song.
8. You Say That the Battle Is Over - I said about everything I wanted to say about this in the DVD review, but suffice it to say John is ticked off because the environment is going to shambles, and he’s not afraid to say so. The lyrics are scathing and tragic: “There are those who would deal in the darkness of life. / There are those who would tear down the sun. / And most men are ruthless, but some will still weep / When the gifts we were given are gone.”
9. Eagles And Horses - Again, see the DVD, but what really distinguishes this one is the killer instrumentals. Most impressive.
10. Darcy Farrow - A sad and gentle ballad with a very folksy feel to it. Were it not for the American locale, it would fit in very well with the Irish Rovers’ repertoire, which is heavy on the tear-jerker Celtic ballads. (Actually, it probably would anyway, since half their songs aren’t even Irish.) John didn’t write it, but he sings it very well.
* 11. Whispering Jesse - It took me a long time to grow into this one. For years I didn’t especially like it, but now it’s one of my favorites. I prefer the Higher Ground version with the chorus of children to this, which features whistling that to my ears sounds flippant rather than reverent, not to mention the fact that it reminds me bitterly that I have never been able to whistle. Still, good song.
* 12. Me & My Uncle - This doesn’t sound like John at all; it’s far too vicious and cold-blooded. It’s a bit of a relief to me that he didn’t write it. That said, I like the song, particularly the menacing guitar work. I just don’t like to think of John Denver writing about murdering people.
13. Wild Montana Skies - There’s tragedy in this song, but all the listener is left with is exhilaration. You could think of this as one of a trio, an ode to land flanked by Calypso, which celebrates the sea, and Rocky Mountain High, which applauds the air. Together or apart, they are testaments to the utter exuberance being out in nature can provoke.
14. Leaving On A Jet Plane / Goodbye Again - The first is a milestone, the song that made John famous. It’s appeared in Catch Me If You Can, Armageddon and The Terminal, not to mention on the list of suggested songs to be banned from the airwaves in the wake of 9/11. It’s sweet and sad and loving, and it’s a winner. But I must admit I’m not so crazy about Goodbye Again. It seems petulant and self-serving. Annie’s complaining that John is never around, and John’s saying, “Tough cookies.” Listening to this song makes me rather uncomfortable, as though I am eavesdropping on a spousal argument.
1. Bet On The Blues - Odd song, very different in sound and theme than any other on this album. The moral: Don’t gamble – and for goodness’ sake, if you’re going to, don’t overdo it. Okay. I can do that. It’s an interesting song, but I’m not especially fond of it, largely because even when I’m only listening, my mind’s eye sees vocalist Pat Hawk slinking around the stage in self-satisfied splendor, and it leaves a rotten taste in my mouth. So does the fact that she annoys me so much. What’s the deal?
2. The Harder They Fall - Hard-rocking John Denver. Hoo boy. More marital discord, but this time he’s treating it more aggressively instead of his usual softly pleading manner. Rowdy. Rough. Even crass. Not my bag. Note, however, the use of the name “Jesse,” also used in I’d Rather Be a Cowboy. Whispering Jesse, meanwhile, is so far removed from the other two. Perhaps that is an embodiment of those elusive, heady days when his love of Annie was pure and unadulterated by the increasing pressures of stardom. The others take a more cynical view.
3. Shanghai Breezes - Light and breezy with more exquisite flute work by Jim Horn. The flutist really stands out throughout this concert, as much as Sir James Galway does on the Return of the King soundtrack. Very pretty, and gentle after a harsh beginning to this second CD. This sounds much more loving than Goodbye Again, and if he doesn’t issue an apology outright, there is one implied. On this occasion, I suspect Annie accepted it.
4. Fly Away - A female version of I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado, from what I can gather. Great flute once again. Wispy and full of yearning, it requires a female counterpart, so I can’t complain about Hawk on this one. The song would sink without her. As it is, it floats along like the feather in Forrest Gump.
5. A Song For All Lovers - See the DVD review. A tender tribute to a great friend to John and to Alaska at large, and an ode to a romance far more successful than any John ever enjoyed. Poor Annie.
* 6. Dreamland Express - A lullaby, a love song, the sweet fantasy of a dream. Smooth and quiet, and an indication of his fascination with trains, which would eventually be the subject of an entire album, the Grammy for which he unfortunately was unable to accept himself.
7. For You - Probably my favorite of his love songs, though my sympathies clearly lie with Annie. Then again, his union to Cassie produced a beautiful child. And anyway, I just am such a fan of that piano.
* 8. Is It Love? - I’m tired of all this acrimony. Trying to somehow turn a bitter break-up into a sweet song – make that several, or many - strikes me as disingenuous, and quite frankly, John, if you’d spent more time talking to your wife about these problems than the rest of the world, maybe you wouldn’t have to write these songs to begin with.
9. Falling Out Of Love - Here we go again. Please, can we get out of the rut already?
10. Annie's Song - And after those last two, we are supposed believe this? Poor placement, if you ask me. This should have been way back in the beginning of the first CD, directly after Country Roads, before we heard any songs hinting at their multitudinous problems – most of which, sadly, were John’s fault. But it’s nice to remember that he loved her once with this kind of passion, and aside from the title it’s the sort of song that applies well to any romance, at least if the involved parties have any appreciation for nature. It’s a beautiful song, but gosh, it makes me sad because John and Annie seemed made for each other and boy, did he screw up.
11. Poems, Prayers & Promises - All hail Jim Horn – in spite of his misleading name! The flute lends an achingly wistful tone to this song, which is glorious and life-affirming and contemplative. I always think of the scene in Take Me Home: The John Denver Story wherein a woman confides to Annie, a counselor, that hearing this song dissuaded her from committing suicide. I don’t know if this is true or if it was merely meant to indicate the potential power of his songs, but I can understand how it would have such an impact. I can’t help but want to embrace life after hearing it, even as I shudder with sadness at the line “It turns me on to think of growing old.” What a pity that he never got the chance.
12. Calypso - Glorious and joyful. Boy, is he happy here! Wrapped into this song are the love of the ocean itself and the thrill of his meeting one of his heroes and joining him briefly in his work. With yodeling and captain’s bells, how can you not love it?
13. Amazon - Very simple and circular, one of those songs that builds on itself, much like All This Joy from Higher Ground. Its lyrics are strikingly similar to the narration in the Earth Share commercial I often see on television late at night. He eventually pulls out all the stops on this one, utilizing the band to its fullest before the concert comes to a close.
* 14. This Old Guitar - A quiet ode to the instrument that started it all for John. Though it was written later, it goes back farther than Leavin’ On a Jet Plane, and his relationship with his guitar proved much more solid than his relationship with Annie. Similar in tone and theme to the Paul Stookey song Sebastian.
* Does not appear on the DVD
I should mention, since I failed to do so in my review of the DVD, each of the instrumentalists by name. I’ve already discussed vocalist Pat Hawk and flutist Jim Horn. Other band members include Pete Huttlinger and James Burton on guitar; Alan Deremo on bass; Michito Sanchez on percussion; Belinda Barrett and Karen Karlsrud on violin; Caryl Paisner on cello; Jenny Hansen on viola; and Chris Nole on piano. Many of these people play other instruments or provide additional vocals in certain songs. Although the song lyrics are not included in the liner notes, these are very well written and manage to accomplish much of what Denver’s asides on the DVD do. Just a few pages of commentary by Maxim Langstaff helps us grasp the significance of the concert, while environmental factoids and references to pertinent organizations increase the likelihood of fans joining John Denver’s cause in one way or another.
Clearly, I love John Denver. I may be conflicted about his ability to maintain strong, intimate relationships with people, but his relationship with wildlife and with his own sense of musicianship never faltered. Here we have the best of both.
More John Denver:
John Denver's Greatest Hits
A Christmas Together (John Denver and the Muppets)
Rocky Mountain Christmas
A Rocky Mountain Holiday (John Denver and the Muppets) - DVD
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