John Denver Celebration returns after pandemic hiatus – Aspen Times

John Denver on stage at the 1977 Deaf Camp Picnic. (Aspen Historical Society/Aspen Times Collection)

As our bard of Starwood wrote, “hey, it’s good to be back home again.”

After no official John Denver week in 2020 due to the pandemic and public health restrictions, the event is back for 2021.

Festivities kicked off on Wednesday and run through the weekend. The crowd is slightly smaller — and drastically less international — than Aspenites and the John Denver faithful have come to expect in the past 23 years, and the program is thinner in this comeback year.

But the John Denver community and the annual celebration’s stalwart performers are back along with the cornerstone events of this local tradition. There are nightly sing-alongs at the Mountain Chalet, legendary locally based singer-songwriters including Ellen Stapenhorse (performing Friday afternoon), Jan Garret and D.D. Martin (playing Sunday morning).

The program includes a handful of noteworthy special events as well. The Windstar Foundation will give a multimedia presentation on the history of the nonprofit and its pristine Old Snowmass environs — from its time as the home of the Utes to its time under John Denver’s ownership to today. It will include speakers Tom and Cathy Crum, who have been with Windstar since its founding, along with other Windstar hands from years past.

The rarely seen 1978 film “Alaska: The American Child” will get a free screening at the Wheeler Opera House on Friday night. The 1978 documentary was produced and directed by Aspen’s John Wilcox and follows Denver — a devoted environmental activist and conservationist — as he travels across the state by plane, boat and foot to share its wonders with viewers.

Chris Collins and Boulder Canyon will perform their annual tribute to John Denver at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday night. (Courtesy photo)

The main event of the week, as was the case for several years pre-pandemic, is the Saturday night John Denver tribute concert at the Wheeler Opera House by Chris Collins and his band Boulder Canyon. The big show normally sells out early, but sales have been slower this year as the out-of-town crowds for the week are smaller. It will be the first concert event on the main stage at the Wheeler since before the pandemic struck in March 2020.

“We’re going to do a big tribute to John Denver with some new music that we haven’t played before,” Collins said. “I find it an honor to present John’s music to his old and new fans.”

Like most touring musicians, Collins was forced to take a long break from the road as the concert industry shut down during the pandemic. He started doing gigs again this summer, including some private shows in and around Aspen, and has found the positive message of Denver’s music and the familiar songs are a salve for humanity as Americans stumble through the ravages of the pandemic and our tumultuous and divided moment in history.

“If I can deliver his songs and his message with integrity to an audience, then I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of using his influence to make the world a little better place,” Collins said. “I think he would look at today’s politics and be saddened by the divisions. I’m sure he would lend his wisdom in songs that reflected that.”

Nearly a quarter century since John Denver’s death, his songs — the iconic “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Annie’s Song” and “Rocky Mountain High,” yes, but also deeper cuts — have remained fixtures in the popular culture with loyal audience and new fans listening.

Posthumous John Denver releases include the 2014 box set “All My Memories” and the Wheeler Opera House concert album “Lime Creek Christmas” released in 2019.

“It still amazes me that people from 3 to 103 three years old still know his songs and are touched by his lyrics,” Collins said. “He truly was a part of Americana, I think his music affected musicians and listeners across every spectrum.”

Sharing the music in a live setting, for Collins, is about continuing a John Denver who extended beyond entertainment and into action.

“I think that if he were alive he would still be lending his voice to making the world the better place that he envisioned,” Collins said. “I think all one has to do is listen closely to the songs and we might find a way to repair the divisions that seem to keep us from creating a world that heals instead of hurts.”