John Denver is coming to town, and he’s bringing his old bandmates with him. Together, they’re kicking off the “Rocky Mountain High Concert” U.S. tour in Westbury on Friday (at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury), and then looping back around to Best Buy Theatre on Tuesday, February 12. And they’ll be playing all the hits, all the songs you’ve known and loved for the past four decades: “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” “Annie’s Song.” “Rocky Mountain High.” Lots more. What’s that, you say? John Denver’s been dead since 1997? No problem.
While there’s no Tupac-style hologram involved in Denver’s on-stage resurrection, the estate of the iconic singer-songwriter has put together a stage show in which they’ve gone through the vaults and found particularly excellent-sounding live performance footage from his old tours in America, Japan, Australia and elsewhere; isolated just him, his singing and his guitar playing on a huge screen; and enlisted old bandmates (and a string section) to play along with that footage live. “For the first time in 15 years, audiences will experience John Denver in concert,” touts organizers.
“There’s so many fans out there that want to see this, I’m sure they’ll really love hearing us playing along with John like we used to,” says 72-year-old Jim Horn, Denver’s saxophone and woodwinds player from 1978 until 1995 (making him Denver’s longest-running sideman). “They’ll get to see him up there on that pretty large screen and, you know, just kinda go back in time.”
Along with Horn–who’s also toured or recorded with John Lennon, Steely Dan, Duane Eddy, U2, Tina Turner, and many others during his esteemed career–the backing band consists of keyboardist Chris Nole, bassist Alan Deremo, guitarist and fiddler Jim Salestrom, and drummer Nate Barnes (who’s also a member of the Colorado hard-rock band Rose Hill Drive).
Every year in October, to commemorate Denver’s passing (he died on October 12, 1997, off the coast of Monterey, California, when his small experimental plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean; the NTSB determined pilot error was to blame), most of those guys participate in a popular tribute concert at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado, with a handful of singers taking turns tackling the tunes. This is a bit different, with Denver himself so prominently featured.
“I’ll be playing the flute and the sax and the recorder, just like I did with John, and we’re gonna try to re-create it so that it’s just like when we were on stage with him,” Horn explains, saying that he misses playing with one of the most generous musicians he’s ever worked for.
“It’s going to be kinda hard at times, but I think I’m gonna enjoy playing along with it because he used to give me all the freedom I wanted out there to ad-lib. He used to say, ‘Just emulate the sounds of the ocean or birds, or whatever it is you hear in your head.’ He’d turn around and look at me when I’d play some of these sounds for him, and he’d wink at me and put his one thumb up, and I knew he was happy with everything. He treated all of us great. If we had a night off, he always took us out to a nice restaurant for dinner somewhere, and we’d just have a great time with him. He was as good a guy as you can imagine.”
Horn’s heard about the Tupac hologram at last year’s Coachella. At the time, more than a few people commented that resurrecting the rapper was cool but kind of morbid, and while this is not that, bringing Denver back to life onstage in this way might be viewed by some as a bit unsettling. But Horn doesn’t see it that way. “You’ll have this big screen and this person that you idolized and whose music you loved over the years up there, and it’s a way of keeping his music alive in the best way that I can think of,” he says. “It’s sad yet it’s happy, and I think people will really enjoy it.”
The “Rocky Mountain High Concert” comes to the NYCB Theatre at Westbury on tonight, Feb. 1 (8 p.m./$39.50) and Best Buy Theater on Feb. 12 (8 p.m./$35-$45).