POP / Back from the back of beyond: It's 20 years since John Denver's big hit, but he's still packing them in. Giles Smith was at the Albert Hall

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The Independent Online
Yes, he played 'Annie's Song', the one he wrote, so the story goes, in 10 minutes on a ski- lift near his home in Aspen, Colorado. He played it one before last, his solitary British hit from 20 years ago, on the strength of which he still sells out the Albert Hall.

Some facts about John Denver. He is 50. He wasn't born in Denver. He wrote 'Leaving on a Jet Plane' for Peter Paul and Mary. In 1974, Governor John Vanderhoof declared him poet laureate of Colorado. He went on to make a million- selling Christmas album with the Muppets. When RCA dropped him in 1986, there was a rumour that it was at the insistence of General Electric, RCA's new parent company. As a major military contractor, GE would have taken exception to Denver's song 'Let Us Begin (What are We Making Weapons For?)', recorded in Moscow with Alexandre Gradsky, a Soviet pop star. Well, that was the rumour.

On Tuesday, he came on in a striped shirt and stood in front of a semi-circle of spare guitars on stands, delivering the songs from a square of rubberised carpet to remove the possibility of electrocution. The cloth backdrop pictured Colorado pines, a tribute to the state which roughly nine out of 10 Denver songs mention. A string section quivered quietly. A small backing band played sensitively. There was a drum kit on the stage, but it wasn't used very often. During the louder numbers, the percussionist would rattle a rowdy gourd.

Denver is a kind of country artist, but it is a country from which the dirt and grit has been carefully vacuumed, leaving the horses to look impressive against sunsets. 'Sweet Surrender', 'Baby You Look Good to me Tonight', 'Sunshine on my Shoulders' ('Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy/ Sunshine almost always makes me high') . . . 'Sing it with me,' he would say gently.

His voice is high and clear and calm even when loud. There was one unfortunate moment when, heading for a top note at the climax, he caught a bump, de-railed and shot off into some scrubland adjacent to the song. The roadie was already coming out of the wings with the guitar for the next number, but Denver sent him back. 'This one's for me,' he said and then ran over that last half-verse again on his own, this time nailing the note. The fans liked that.

Some more facts about John Denver. He was born in Roswell, New Mexico. He was winner of the Presidential World Without Hunger Award in 1987. He has grown a moustache. In 1988, Aviation Week and Space Technology reported that he had asked the Soviet Union to launch him to the Mir Space Station. Perhaps the thinking was, if he could write a million-selling single astride a ski-lift, what would he come up with while arrowing through the clouds on board a rocket? Anyway, the Soviet Union wanted to charge him dollars 10m for a ticket which seemed a bit steep and so the project was side-lined.

On stage, he argued that we all live under the same stars and the same sun. 'We're not so far apart,' he said. This was warmly applauded. He closed his set with 'Calypso', named after Jacques Cousteau's ship, and then some encores.

The connection between John Denver and the Mancunian pop group New Order? He sued them for alluding rather too openly to 'Leaving on a Jet Plane' on their song 'Run'. The matter was settled out of court, with New Order's Steven Morris remarking that the sum they paid was their contribution to launching John Denver into space.

But he's still here.

(Photograph omitted)