The Wildlife Concert

John Denver

Sony Legacy Records, 1995

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Not long after John Denver's death last year (and after I wrote a review of Poems, Prayers & Promises), I received an e-mail from someone aho had heard about the review from the newsgroup. I wish I still had your name - sorry, but I wiped out my Juno account - but you basically said to me, "Pick up The Wildlife Concert and review it. If you don't like it, I'll gladly buy it off of you."

Sorry, pal - you're going to have to pry my cold, dead hands off of the tape first. This two-tape set (believe it or not, I could only find it on tape at Borders) features Denver sounding richer than he ever has before, and is a brilliant, though flawed, portrait of the artist trying to prove to us he still has significance. (Warning to those who have come to this review via the newsgroup: Please hold off on your flame mail until after I've explained the "flaw".)

In 1995, John Denver was facing a "fresh start" on his musical life. He was given a contract by Sony Music, and launched his "comeback" by performing a retrospective of his career live. (For those who had the brilliance that other like myself didn't have, they knew that Denver had never gone away - he had fallen out of favor with the times and radio.) With an audience of friends and fans and championing The Wildlife Federation, a cause close to his heart, Denver took the stage and poured his entire being into the shows which were taped for audio and video release.

Commercially, the "comeback" didn't happen - through no fault of Denver's or the crack band of musicians he had assembled for this show. Taste-wise, we (the un-believers) were still skeptical, and weren't willing to give Denver another chance. Only after his death did people like myself realize just what we had been missing - dear God!

Now 50, Denver's voice had taken on a richer tone than on his original albums, but it also seemed to add the sound of experience to the songs he presented. The opening song, "Rocky Mountain High," could have said it all for this album. Denver sounded like he was only out to please himself and the people who had gathered to hear him, comeback be damned. The result: a very relaxed atmosphere, and incredible singing and playing. (If there was ever a doubt about Denver's talents on guitar, my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 The Wildlife Concert will erase them.)

While this collection features most of the hits that one would expect ("Country Roads," "Back Home Again," "Sunshine On My Shoulders"), Denver also has some surprises to pull out of his hat. A cover of David Mallett's "You Say The Battle Is Over" is an incredible number featuring only Denver's vocals and guitar work. A new song, "A Song For All Lovers," is one which nearly puts me in tears each time I hear it because of its simplicity and beauty. If you have the video, just the sight of Denver singing the last note with his eyes closed speaks volumes. (Paul Horn's flute work here is breathtaking, though I can't say I liked him overdoing it on saxophone on "Sunshine On My Shoulders.")

Surprisingly, the songs with which I was not familiar were the greatest surprises on The Wildlife Concert. "Matthew" is a powerful song which should have been a hit for Denver, and is one I constantly find myself going back to. "For You," the song which was supposed to put Denver back on the radio, features him on piano backed by a string quartet pouring out his heart in a song that says more about love than anything he's written. (I also wish I had known about this song when I got married back in 1995.) "Wild Montana Skies" is a cross between country and rock featuring the vocal talents of Pat Hawk, while "The Harder They Fall" throws Denver feet first into the world of rock, with incredible results.

Are there a few mis-fires on The Wildlife Concert? To my ears, yes - but not many. Growing up knowing about "Me And My Uncle" courtesy of The Grateful Dead, Denver's version, while it may be closer to the bone, just doesn't sound right. And as much as I try, I cannot build up a tolerance for "Darcy Farrow" - sorry, gang, just not my cup of tea.

The closing numbers of The Wildlife Concert are the most powerful. Denver's rendition of "Poems, Prayers & Promises" is sad to hear considering his untimely death ("I have to say it now, it's been a good life, all in all..."), while "Calypso" and "Amazon" create grooves that suck you in. It is also amazing to hear Denver hit the highest notes on "Calypso", making it sound almost effortless. The finale, "This Old Guitar," is as good a closer as I can imagine.

So with all this praise, you ask, how could I call this flawed? Two reasons, both of them minor. First, having first saw the home video (courtesy of A&E), I became used to hearing more banter in between the songs. (It was funny to see after "The Harder They Fall" Denver say, "Who woulda thunk it? Johnny Denver doin' rock 'n' roll.") I missed hearing some of these on the album. Second, there are songs on the album that aren't on the video, and vice versa. Inasmuch as I can appreciate Sony wanting to create enough of a difference to make us want to buy the two items, I would have loved to heard songs like "I'd Rather Be A Cowboy" on the album, and seem performances like "Matthew" and "Dreamland Express" on the video.

For that matter, the one song I would have killed to heard on either of these was "My Sweet Lady"... oh, well.

The Wildlife Concert should have been Denver's ticket back into the spotlight, had most of us only taken the time to sit and listen for two hours. Unfortunately for us, we didn't, and Denver never regained the fame he once enjoyed. Fortunately, we still have the audio and video of these magical nights to enjoy. Rumor is that the upcoming DVD will include more performance footage - reason enough to waste $500 and buy the newest and greatest electronic toy.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Sony Legacy Records, and is used for informational purposes only.