France's 'Sinatra' Rails at Life, John Denver Embraces Causes

Recent New York concerts showcased two iconic singers


When it comes to nihilism, punk rockers have nothing on singer Charles Aznavour. France's most esteemed singer-actor (he is, to put it roughly, the French equivalent of Sinatra) fairly oozes with vitriol on several of the songs on his new compact disc, "You and Me," just released on Angel.

The difference is that when this legendary performer sings about the bitterness of a failed marriage in "You Against Me," the world-weariness in his voice is eminently convincing; you feel he has all the right in the world to express such things.

Aznavour has never exactly been a sunny songwriter, but he is also capable of writing songs of great tenderness, such as the title song of his new release, or "The Old-Fashioned Way," about the glories of ballroom dancing.

At the singer's recent Carnegie Hall performance, the auditorium was filled with adoring fans, both French and American. Dressed in his trademark all-black outfit, which set off his gray hair, he cut a dashing, romantic figure. Performing in English and French (with one song in Spanish), he took care to make clear what the songs were about, translating most of the French lyrics into English before he sang.

The most powerful numbers detailed the fading of an attachment, whether it was "Happy Anniversary," about the ending of a marriage, or "You Let Yourself Go."

Still, if Aznavour sings about the fading of passion, there is no lack of it in his voice. There is a vibrancy to his vocalizing that is simply amazing, and, fine actor that he is, he supplemented his singing with expressive body language.

On his new album, which can already be declared one of the finest of the year, there is a song called "You'll Never Hear Me Say Goodbye," in which he both rails against performers who go on endless farewell tours and promises never to retire himself. One only hopes that he can be taken at his word.


There was a time during the 1970s when you couldn't turn on a radio without hearing a John Denver song. "Rocky Mountain High," "Sunshine on My Shoulders," "Country Roads," "Annie's Song," "Calypso," "Back Home Again." The hits rolled on, and his greatest-hits collection, on RCA, sold 10 million copies.

Then, like many artists who hit a commercial zenith, he fell victim to changing times and a music world that lost its taste for his old-fashioned, melodic bent. Denver never really went away, however, continuing to release many albums (five in the last six years) on his own record label.

Now, his comeback is in full swing: He's got a new two-CD live album, "The Wildlife Concert" on a major label (Sony/Legacy), a new video, a recent television special on A&E, and a national tour.

Performing recently at Radio City Music Hall (a venue that seemed slightly incongruous for a performer more used to natural settings), Denver demonstrated that he is in fine form. All the shows on the tour are to benefit one of the singer's pet causes, the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The still boyish-looking singer showed himself in excellent voice, performing a number of his hits (with the exception, thankfully, of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy"), as well as newer material.

There's a maturity, a sureness present now that wasn't there 20 years ago. Hitting a high note and holding it for what seemed like a very, very long time, he brought the audience to cheers.

If the newer material, including the nature-themed "Eagles and Horses," doesn't quite have the pop hooks of the older work, they are still substantial songs that command respect.

Denver is unapologetic about the nature of much of his material: "I'm just a romantic," he admitted at one point. But he also displayed a sharp sense of humor. The affection of the audience at Radio City was palpable; they seemed to be welcoming back a long-lost friend.

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