JOHN DENVER – AROUND THE WORLD LIVE (2009)
Featuring John Denver.
Directed by Barry Ehrmann.
Distributed by Eagle Rock Entertainment. 592 minutes. Not Rated.
In the twelve years since his untimely death in a plane crash – and a good 30 years on from his popular heyday – it has become all too easy to forget how huge a star John Denver was in the 1970s. Around the World Live not only reminds us of Denver’s amazing popularity, but also of what a truly talented singer/songwriter the man was.
At this point in history, Denver is mostly remembered for a few songs. “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Annie’s Song” and perhaps “Rocky Mountain High” or “Take Me Home Country Roads” still get some airplay on oldies radio – and deservedly so, all are sublime pieces of song craft. However, Denver’s songbook goes so much deeper than those songs and Around the World Live delves into most of the important corners of his catalogue.
He is sometimes looked down on a bit now because the man was never cool. Denver was resolutely (some may say cornily) sincere about love and the beauty of nature in a way that may be mocked in today’s more cynical world, and yet that very lack of snarkiness is wonderfully refreshing. His music was a melding of country, folk and bluegrass, with enough of a pop sheen to score fifteen top-40 hits in just over a decade – including seven top-ten singles.
Now, I will admit, as a child I spent a year in Boulder, Colorado right at the height of Denver’s superstardom – about a 45 minute drive from his beloved Denver and right off of the Rocky Mountains – so it is somewhat inbred into me to be a fan of the man’s work. However, it has been quite a few years since I explored Denver’s music and this package brought back with a rush what a truly exceptional singer and songwriter Denver was in his prime.
Around the World Live is an embarrassment of riches – five DVDs which include full-length concerts filmed in 1977, 1981, 1984 and 1986. There are also a series of performances from Farm Aid shows in 1985, 1987 and 1990. Plus, as a further bonus, there are two documentaries which Denver worked on – a 1972 nature doc about the Bighorn sheep and a special celebrating Earth Day 1990.
Obviously five DVDs of John Denver is probably more than any but the most rabid fans need in their collections, particularly since there are several songs which show up in just about every show. However one or two of these concerts – preferably the 1977 and 1981 shows – are absolutely deserving of a place in the most discerning music fan’s library.
The first disk is the most dynamic, showing Denver playing a mammoth stadium show in Australia in 1977, just at the tail end of his superstardom. Denver is in wonderful voice and at full confidence here, sharing several of his biggest hits but also having the faith to play lesser-known songs like “Looking For Space,” “Farewell Andromeda (Welcome to My Morning)” and “Druthers.” Musically the playing is flawless and visually the performance is rather well captured – though due to the video’s age and lack of cameras a little too much is done in long shots. Still, just to see Denver at the height of his talents is a wonder.
The 1981 disk was a more straightforward hits performance, more comfortably filmed and professionally played. He had just gotten off of a self-imposed three-year hiatus from music the year before and his star had dimmed, but not completely faded. This show was filmed in Japan, therefore the audience reception is a little restrained (the Japanese consider it rude to clap during songs).
In this hits-heavy setting, the scope of Denver’s skill as a balladeer is amply on display. However ballads, while usually quite beautiful, can get to be a little much over a two-hour show, making you thankful when he picks up the pace for songs such as “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” or “Dancing with the Mountains.”
There are many fine moments in the 1986 English show – well past Denver’s stardom but showing a nice maturity with some forgotten later singles such as “Shanghai Breezes,” “How Can I Leave You Again?” and “Perhaps Love.” It is quite probable that Denver had a bit of a cold or something while performing, though, because his normally warm and crystal-clear voice cracks a few times over the course of the concert.
The 1984 show – also in Japan – is a solo acoustic gig long before unplugged became cool. As you may imagine, Denver’s songbook lends itself to the form as comfortably as “Grandma’s Feather Bed.”
Just for the record, the 1972 Bighorn sheep documentary that he filmed has aged better than the 18-years-younger Earth Day special – mainly because of the majestic beauty of the mountains and the animals.
John Denver-Around the World Live is a sumptuous reminder of a talent that was snuffed out way too early and has been somewhat forgotten as time has gone on.
Is nearly ten hours of rarely-seen John Denver concerts more than most people need? Perhaps it is. Even the most rabid fan would be best off watching this box set over a period of time rather than trying to wade through the whole thing. In fact, there is also a single-disk version of the 1981 Japanese show being sold separately for the more casual fan. However, all of the concerts are worth seeing and uniformly well played, so if you are a fan, then this box set is the mother lode.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 16, 2009.