Performer Mike Eldred has a story to tell his audience at Flat Rock Playhouse’s Second Stage involving a station wagon, an eight-track tape, a family vacation and John Denver. Strangely enough, I have a similar story I tell when attempting to justify my deep appreciation of John Denver, complete with an eight-track tape of “An Evening with John Denver.”
Let’s face it, in this day and age of hipster sensibility, the tortured optimism and simplicity of Denver’s lyrics and his persona are the very anti-thesis of cool. Yet whenever I have stepped up to the plate and admitted that I don’t just like John Denver, I love John Denver, inevitably someone else gasps and says “Me too!”
Perhaps it’s largely nostalgia, or maybe it’s just that the clear, bright tones of his voice, that innocence coupled with sentimentality is simply hard to resist when done right. And John Denver was a legend before he was tragically killed in an airplane accident in 1997, and not just because some find him irritatingly goofy.
Flat Rock Playhouse introduces their new Second Stage series, Music on the Rock Concerts Series, with vocalist Mike Eldred’s tribute to John Denver. Eldred was most recently seen at Flat Rock in “For The Glory”, the Civil War musical, and his experience as a musical theatre performer is apparent in the way he interprets Denver’s songs as a conversation between himself and the audience.
At first, I had a difficult time embracing his complete and utter dedication to the literal performance of Denver’s songs, complete with hand gestures and emotive expression. The opening song, “The Eagle and the Hawk,” an iconic number that is poetic in both lyrics and soaring melody, was sung by Eldred in such an intensely showy way that I invented the term “Denver-Vegas” on the spot.
However, Eldred’s voice is definitely spectacular; it just isn’t anything like Denver’s. Yet that’s why the show is a tribute, not an impersonation. Eldred’s stage banter revealed he is truly appreciative of the incredible opportunity to do an entire show of songs by an artist he has admired for most of his life, and his gratitude was beyond endearing.
This sort of atmosphere of unadulterated Denver appreciation created a kind of Denver church in which all could feel free to express their Denver love, and boy, we did. By the fifth song, “Follow Me.” (my parents’ wedding song) the audience barely had to be encouraged to sing along, and did loudly and often for the rest of the show. Despite my resistance to the pure cheesiness of it all, I personally sang right along with everyone else, and after years of privately connecting with John Denver’s music, it was nothing short of touching to be able to wave my Denver flag among friends.
Eldred’s voice is at its best during numbers like “My Sweet Lady” and “Annie’s Song”; melodic, emotionally expressive songs that are served well by Eldred’s crisp enunciation and clear vibrato. On the other hand, as one patron behind me said to his companion during intermission, “He can’t hit the high notes like John Denver could.” Eldred certainly hit them, though he strained in his falsetto during the yodeling part of “Calypso,” and his voice lacks the rounded, smooth quality of Denver’s.
However, this only served to highlight the true ability of John Denver, and why his total package of songwriter, singer, and guitarist was such a rare treat, and worthy of a night of testament by a dedicated talent. By the end of the evening, Mike Eldred and his capable band had won the hearts of the audience with their completely unselfconscious performance of Denver’s best and brightest, a truly rare experience.
The Music on the Rock Concert Series will run through fall, with shows highlighting artists such as Billy Joel and Barbra Streisand, performed by Flat Rock’s excellent talent pool. If you are an aficianado of any of the music in the schedule, don’t miss this opportunity to celebrate some of your favorite songs in a relaxed, casual atmosphere with like-minded fans. And if you can admit that John Denver is near and dear to your heart, you have one more week to catch Mike Eldred’s tribute concert.
Music on the Rock Concert Series presents “Country Roads: The Very Best of John Denver.”
Aug 22-24 and Aug 29-31. Flat Rock Playhouse is located at 2661 Greenville Highway in Flat Rock. Evening performances for “Country Roads” are Sunday through Tuesday at 8:00, August 22-24 and August 29-31. All tickets are $20 and can be purchased by calling the Playhouse box office at 828-693-0731, toll-free at 866-732-8008 or online at http://www.flatrockplayhouse.org.