John Denver

Tour Preview: A Look Inside “John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert”

John Denver
It’s been more than 15 years now since singer/songwriter John Denver passed away tragically while flying his personal plane. Every year since Denver’s death, former members of his band have gathered in Aspen, Colorado to pay tribute to the music and memory of their beloved friend.

This year, that legacy is being celebrated nationwide with a unique touring experience called John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert which will feature for the first time, video footage of Denver performing his greatest hits and also some album track favorites as well, backed live by members of his original touring band, including legendary saxophonist/woodwinds player Jim Horn, keyboardist Chris Nole and bassist Alan Deremo. Rounding out the group of performers will be musical director Jim Salestrom (handling a variety of instruments) and drummer/percussionist Nate Barnes.

The tour, which is being produced by Denver’s estate, began last week and will run throughout the month of February (including a stop in the Cleveland area at the Stocker Arts Center in Elyria, OH on February 14) with additional tour dates to follow after that. In the midst of rehearsals, we tore Nate Barnes away from his kit for a few moments to talk about what  fans can look forward to.

How have the rehearsals been going?

It’s been really great. You know, I met the guys for the first time and [prior to that] I’d been given all of the tracks ahead of time and spent about the last month or so getting to know all of the tunes and refamiliarizing myself with John’s music and it’s been really great. It’s a super-talented group of musicians and they’ve all obviously played with John, but they’ve also played with tons of other legendary musicians, so there’s a lot of talent in the group and it’s coming together really well.

Just looking at Jim Horn’s résumé, I’m thinking that you might have a few things to talk about with him while you’re on the road together.

Oh yeah! Absolutely. He has for sure been around the block and met everybody and played with everybody and he is definitely kind of a legend in that whole world.

You come in from an interesting angle, being one of the guys who didn’t play with John. So what has that experience been like for you? How did you get involved in this?

John’s estate’s management contacted me. I’d grown up listening to John Denver and I think I sang along with “Grandma’s Feather Bed” when I was little and that was one of my favorite tunes. So I was already pretty familiar with his music, in the sense that I listened to it when I was a kid. It was really great to get back into it and hear all of those songs again and I was pretty blown away at what an amazing singer and songwriter and what an amazing poet [John was]. It just kind of hit me — now that I’m older, I think I have a newfound appreciation for it and it’s just been a pleasure to be soaking in all of the tunes and getting in his head a little bit and learning his whole thing.

Was John’s estate aware of you through your band Rose Hill Drive, or how did they come across your work?

Yeah, my main gig is with the band Rose Hill Drive and we had the same management, so that was kind of where the connection was made.

What was the audition process?

There wasn’t really an audition, it was just that I’d worked with their management for a really long time, so they sort of knew what they were getting with me. I’d been putting it out there that I was available and looking for tours to jump on, because I’d been doing mostly freelance stuff in the past year and a half. [I think it was] kind of just [being in] the right place at the right time and it all seems to be gelling really well too.

Is this a greatest hits kind of set, or are there some deep tracks in the setlist for the hardcore fans?

I think it’s a mixture of both. We definitely wanted to have a lot of the really well-known tunes in there. But there’s definitely stuff that fans probably haven’t seen before and a couple of more B-sides that give you a little more perspective about his other stuff. It’s a lot of great stuff, just lyrically and melodically [and besides the hits, there are some] really great tunes that aren’t “Rocky Mountain High” or “Country Roads” or “Feather Bed,” but still really stand up to those equally in terms of the quality.

John’s going to be singing with you guys via a video screen onstage. Technically, what was required to pull that off?

There’s video and there’s audio and it’s all synced up together and we’re basically live accompanying the audio. There was definitely a process of getting the tracks split up so we can make our own mix, so like I can hear his guitar really well, to lock into that, you know? And it’s definitely been a little bit of a learning curve as they’re live performances and not necessarily something that was recorded to a metronome or click track, so it definitely breathes and moves and we kind of breathe and move with it. I wouldn’t say it’s been a challenge, but it definitely keeps you on your toes, which has been really fun for me.

Have you ever done anything in this vein before? I was going to ask if you were playing to a click track or how that was going to be coordinated from your end. Because I would imagine that in a normal situation, your drumming would be a big part of keeping things on track and driving the engine. But in this case, it sounds like the video of John — which has a bit of a chaotic element built in since there isn’t a click or a metronome that makes it really lock in — that will be what is driving your direction as a band onstage.

Yeah, absolutely. And from talking to the band, that’s kind of how it was when they’d play live. John was very much driving the ship. And it wasn’t necessarily John following the drummer, [instead] the drummer was following John. So in that sense, it’s not too different from how they’re used to playing live, which is cool.

I think that’s probably the way it is with a lot of bands, but when you have a show like this where there are elements that are coming in that are not an extra guy standing onstage, I just know it tends to be a little bit more controlled as a result of that.

Yeah and the cool thing is that we all have in-ear monitors and that makes it really easy to hear exactly what he’s doing. I definitely have his rhythm guitar loudest in my ears and he’s actually really easy to lock in with. I think it’s cool that the songs breathe a bit and it’s not all just really regimented and in perfect time like so much music nowadays is. Older school music, the exciting parts would speed up a little bit and the quieter or more dramatic parts would slow down a tad and that made it a lot more organic. I’ve done a fair amount of playing to backing tracks live before, but it’s usually pretty locked in with the metronome and you’re just sort of following that, whereas this, it’s much more like an interactive thing rather than a regimented thing, which is cool.

There’s a lot of video footage of John out there. Were there different shows to pull from, or is all of this video material coming from one show?

It’s from a few different concerts and to be honest, I haven’t seen all of the video. I’ve mostly just been listening to the audio. But there is a fair amount of never before seen footage, which I think is cool. And I think the real draw is that you get to see John play with a live band and hear his voice coming through a PA in the theater like it used to. I think it’s probably the closest thing you can get to having experienced it when he was alive, you know? I think that will just be a really cool thing for fans to kind of be able to reconnect that way and listen to him in a theater and hear the power of his voice when it’s amplified through the PA instead of just watching it on a DVD or something like that.

How has that feeling been for you, being behind the kit. What does it feel like from the stage?

You know, I’m not too concerned about the video, really. We have a little monitor onstage, because sometimes it can be a little useful to get some kind of visual cues from watching him play. But really, it’s all in the ears and it’s all listening and playing along. So as far as that, it’s not too different. The screen’s behind me so as far as my view of stuff, it’s a normal situation.

Are there some crowd interaction elements from John that they’ve left in? And is there an opportunity for the live musicians to do the same with the audience?

John introduces some songs on the video. There are [also] a few songs that we are doing just completely live, which is cool and that’s fun. [Because of that,] there will be some interaction with Jim, the musical director and guitarist, talking to the crowd and also [there will be] some personal anecdotes from the band members of their time playing with John.

This has to be one of the more interesting projects that you’ve done.

Yeah, absolutely. It’s just been great to learn a whole body of work and then be playing along with tracks. I’m kind of doing 10 things at once — I’m doing percussion and drums, so I’m playing shakers with one hand and drums with the other and mixing it all around. So for me, it’s been great to get out of my box a little bit instead of just straight kit playing, to be able to wear some different hats and approach it from more of a percussion standpoint and more like complimenting the music, rather than driving the music. That’s been a really cool experience for me and just getting to play with these guys — they’re all so talented and they all have steel trap minds in terms of remembering little details in songs and stuff. It’s just been great company that keeps you on the edge of your seat and you’ve gotta bring your A game. But that’s been really exciting for me.

What else is coming up for you?

Well, I’m based out of Denver and doing a lot of session stuff and composing. Rose Hill Drive was off for 2012 and it looks like we’re going to be off for most of 2013. It’s kind of open ended. We just put out a third record at the end of 2011 and everyone’s exploring different things. I’ve been doing a lot of local shows and a few tours here and there. So really, mostly just continuing to do some freelance stuff will be my thing for the next year or so.

It seems like Rose Hill Drive has opened you up to some pretty cool experiences. You’ve done some cool things with them through the years.

Yeah, we got some great opportunities and played on some really big arena tours. We played some huge festivals and worked with some great producers and engineers. It’s really been fun. You know, for our third record, we added a fourth member and I think that album was probably the most fun for me to make. But yeah, random stuff like playing with Van Halen and playing with the Who — we did a private show where we played some Who songs with Pete Townshend. So [some] really cool opportunities for sure.

And you had one of your records reviewed by David Fricke of Rolling Stone. For a liner notes and a magazine geek, it doesn’t get much bigger than having him say good things about your band.

Totally. That was awesome and I totally look up to that guy. He sort of championed us a little bit early on, which you can’t really ask for more than that, you know, a guy like that getting behind you, which is awesome.

What else do you want people to know about?

I’ve explained the idea of the show to a lot of people and people can be a little confused by it at first, but I think really the point that I’ve been hammering home is just that, like I said earlier, it’s getting to experience John on a big screen with a live band and hear his voice through the PA and relive that experience for those who were lucky enough to see him back in the day. And a lot of the anecdotes and his song introductions really give you a cool window into his whole thought process and what he was all about. So I think even the most hardcore fans will come away learning some stuff they didn’t know about him after seeing the show, which I think is awesome.

Band-wise, who else would be on your fantasy list to play with in a similar situation like this?

Well, I always grew up a huge Led Zeppelin fan and huge Who fan and that was cool, since I actually did get to play with Pete Townshend, you know? I think some of the more modern bands that I’m really into, like I think it would be a blast to play with Foo Fighters or play with Queens of the Stone Age — something like that. But definitely, I’d say Zeppelin would have been my number one dream to get up and get to play a song with those guys. I’m sure I wouldn’t have done it total justice to what [John] Bonham would have done. But he’s always been a huge hero of mine and I’ve definitely tried to take a lot of his techniques and philosophies [and incorporate them] into my playing, so that would be pretty awesome just to get to interact with the rest of the band in that setting.

Foo Fighters is a ballsy pick, because that indicates that you’d be willing to pick up sticks in front of Dave Grohl, which says a lot.

Yeah, I’m a huge fan of his and I used to drum along to all of his records and all of the Foo Fighters records and I’d just love to hop back there and get to rock one of those fast tunes.