Wheeler Opera House hosts a weekend of John Denver tributes
Katherine Roberts Special to The Aspen Times
A Tribute to John Denver with Chris Collins and Boulder Canyon comes to Wheeler Opera House Oct. 8.
"He was the first person I’d ever heard sing about nature. His music speaks to me the way it speaks to a lot of people,” said Chris Collins, lead singer of the John Denver tribute act. This October marks the 25th anniversary of John Denver’s death, as well as 50 years since the release of one of his most well-known (and locally relevant) songs, “Rocky Mountain High.” Collins, reflecting on this moment, will return to perform in Aspen alongside the band Boulder Canyon Oct. 8 and said this year has even more significant meaning than years past.
Because of Denver’s connections to the Roaring Fork Valley, the Wheeler Opera House typically packs in a crowd of longtime fans for the tribute. This year, two nights of events are on tap on both Friday and Saturday, collectively called “A Celebration of John Denver’s Life and Music.” The first show will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7 at the Wheeler Opera House. The show is called “Songs for a Life” and will feature Chris Bannister, Jeffrey Pine, and Chris Nole and Mack Bailey as a duo.
Night two features the aforementioned Collins and Boulder Canyon at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8. Collins is excited to return to the place where this all started, having met the founding members of the band in Aspen years ago at the largest annual celebration of Denver’s life and music. “The more I dug into his catalog of albums, the more I loved it. It’s how I paid my way through college — playing Jim Croce, James Taylor and John Denver,” he said. And it didn’t hurt that Collins was strikingly familiar in both look and sound to the man he so admired. He hooked up with the other musicians (and fans) and the rest, as they say, is history. “We’re not an imitation act. We don’t go onstage to imitate a John Denver performance. We try to give the audience an experience that makes them feel the way they used to feel when they listened to John Denver,” he said. “Much of what we do onstage is not exact notes. My band is incredibly talented, and we just let them off their leash.” The band features Collins on six and 12-string guitar; Alex Mitchell on fiddle, mandolin, guitar, harmonica and cajon; Jim Connor (Denver’s banjo player) on banjo; Kevin Delmolino on bass; Paul Swanton on lead guitar; Nigel Newton on piano and keys; and Kj Reimensnyder-Wagner on harmony vocals. And because the band doesn’t focus on exact notes, no two shows are exactly alike, even for fans who return to the tribute year after year. “The audience keeps it fresh for us,” Collins said. “When we do our shows, I do my very best to sing in my own voice. I let the song out, and I find that’s the best way to deliver authenticity from a musical standpoint. The band truly, authentically enjoys the music so much. We have never had a problem with things feeling stale. Even though we’ve done the songs hundreds of times, there’s a comfort zone in them, like greeting a loved one. You never get tired of saying ‘Hi, Mom.’”
Comfort and familiarity, with a twist, are also a focus of the performance, as they frequently invite members of Denver’s original band onstage and mix those appearances with jokes and tales.
“This year, we’re going to feature the musician who wrote ‘Grandma’s Featherbed,’ Jim Connor, who is a very special guest fans will remember and love,” Collins said. “We also have a lot of original humor and original stories about what happens to us on the road. John (Denver) and I have a little bit of similarity in our delivery, so it seems familiar, but the stories are fresh.”
And Collins hopes these days of celebrations and heartfelt performances will provide longtime Denver fans, like him, with a place and headspace of joy to sustain them for the next 25 or 50 years.
“I really love who John was,” he said. “Some people loved his voice, his melodies and his connection to nature. I love that John used his celebrity to shine a light on global concerns. I hope to continue that legacy in his honor. As a band, I hope we represent his music well, and as an individual, I hope I can follow his example of how to be a good member of the human race.” Songs for Life features four musicians Oct. 7 at Wheeler Opera House. A tale of two tributes If you go… What: Songs for a Life: Remembering John Denver When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7 Where: Wheeler Opera House Tickets: $45-$55 This event honors John Denver and his music with three shows in a one-night concert. Chris Bannister opens the evening with his distinctive vocal style, which has led him to being compared to Denver. Twelve years ago, Bannister started performing his show, The Music of John Denver, after Denver’s former guitarist, Steve Weisberg, contacted him. Jeffrey Pine, a world-class guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, takes the stage next. His repertoire includes original compositions, as well as the classics that pay tribute to Denver’s music. Mack Bailey and Chris Nole close out the evening as a duo. Bailey is a nationally acclaimed singer-songwriter who has performed worldwide as a member of the renowned folk group The Limeliters. He has also sung with dozens of folk and country stars as a member of The Hard Travelers and Tribute to John Denver productions. The Aspen resident has a private practice working with the Aspen School District and with his nonprofit, Music Therapy of the Rockies. Nole recorded and toured internationally with Denver in the 1990s. He is currently a music producer and session musician in Tennessee.
Another show: A Tribute to John Denver with Chris Collins and Boulder Canyon When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8 Where: Wheeler Opera House Tickets: $55-$75 Chris Collins and Boulder Canyon have toured internationally, delighting audiences with their warmth, humor, talent and passion for Denver’s music. With stunning visuals of nature, they return to the Wheeler Opera House to perform hits like “Rocky Mountain High,” “Take Me Home,” “Annie’s Song,” “Sunshine” and more. More info: wheeleroperahouse.com Chris Collins and Boulder Canyon play Wheeler Opera House Oct. 8.