By our count, last night's concert in Saskatoon, Canada, marked the 3,000th time guitarist, backing vocalist, and Musical Director Davey Johnstone has performed with Elton John.
In honour of this momentous occasion, we spoke with Davey about his considerable achievement while he had a night off in Vancouver during the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour.
Watch the video below to see Elton introduce Davey at his 3,000th show:
EltonJohn.com: How are you doing, Davey?
Davey Johnstone: I’m doing very well! I’m enjoying the shows. It’s pretty bizarre, I think we are – or I know I am – rocking harder than we ever have. Some of the songs have taken on a different life and that’s been encouraging. We’re stepping it up and so the audience, in turn, are getting affected by that.
EJ.com: It’s an exuberant farewell show.
DJ: That was the idea, but I’m finding that especially in the last four or five shows it’s been more emotional for Elton, actually. And the people I can see in the first few rows, you can see a few teary eyes and people losing it a little bit towards the end of the set every night. But he’s getting more emotional. I think it’s a combination of the response of the audience and the way we are all playing. I think it’s finally getting to him a little bit. He’s gotten a bit tongue-tied and choked up when he’s introducing [the band] and he thanks the audience and says goodbye. The response gets so gigantic that I think it’s kicking in for him. He may not have been expecting that.
EJ.com: Every show just seems to be ‘more’ than the last one.
DJ: Yeah. We decided a long, long time ago that a live performance really is uncharted territory; every night you get on stage you never know what’s gonna happen. So, when everything works in sync and in harmony you just try and take advantage. We’ve never been a band that likes to sit back on our laurels. We’re not content; if we reach one plateau, we want to do better the next show…and the next show after that. We certainly can never say, “Okay, now we’re there, we’re fine now, let’s just cruise.” Our enjoyment comes out of giving as much as we can and getting it back from the audience. That’s what we do and it’s working!
EJ.com: One example of that is your interplay with bassist Matt Bissonette.
DJ: Matt’s kind of like the perfect sidekick on stage. He’s like Robin, you know? I should put him in a cape and a mask and call him Robin…except I don’t want to see him in tights, thank you very much. But he’s a great guy and he loves that himself – he needs that connection on stage. He’s a fun person to have on stage and I’ve always had a connection with our bass players, from Dee [Murray] onwards. Dee and I were “brothers” and that’s never changed, even though he’s long gone [Dee died in 1992]. I miss him every day. We’ve had some great bass players down the years and a great history of amazing musicians in the band. I mean, John Jorgenson… thank God for him because he came in and filled in for me so well! [Davey took time off during the European shows this summer.] No one else could have done that job, really. And we’re such great friends; we’re talking about doing another acoustic project someday [Davey and John did an acoustic CD called Crop Circles in 1999].
When I took that time out we’d done 77 shows already so we were hard-boiled and into it, you know? I’m so glad I took that break – it did me more good than anything else could have. Elton and I were just talking about it on Monday, we got together for a couple of hours and had some tea. I am so grateful that was arranged. John already knew most of the songs and the people in the band and crew and everything. Besides that, he just plays great. And he’s a great guy – he got to hang out with [percussionist] Ray Cooper. Ray and I are partners in crime on the road and we hang out all the time, so on the European tour John filled my shoes in that area also and went out to dinner with Ray almost every night! They became great friends and have so much respect for each other.
Ray and I are back doing things together on our nights off now. I took him out to dinner last night because he just had a birthday. It’s great having all of that – you have to have that while you’re on the road. I like to get the hell out of the hotel. Before talking to you, I was out doing a bit of a power walk and then coming back I saw a couple of stores and I was suckered into going in and buying some stuff [laughing]. Vancouver is a great town. Canada in general is just amazing.
I’ve done tours back in our naughty days where I never left the hotel, except to get more cigarettes and more vodka, but I realised that’s no way to carry on and so I make good use of getting out and seeing the town that I’m in, if I have the time. If we have a night off, I’m like, "what a great opportunity". I think it shows a bit of respect to yourself and to life in general.
EJ.com: It should be noted that 3,000 shows is more than most lead acts have done.
DJ: I know! I was thinking about it the other day. We thought it was maybe the Tacoma show the other day and, ironically, Eddie Vedder, who is a dear friend of mine, and his family were at that show. And so was Jerry Cantrell from Alice In Chains. And the show was crazy! So I texted Eddie and said, “Hey, that show you were at last week? I think that was my 3,000th show.” He was going nuts, because he’s a massive fan. He’s just a huge fan of what we do. But then when we determined my 3,000th will be in Saskatoon, I texted him back to tell him that. And he said, “F*** Saskatoon, I’m claiming Tacoma!”
He’s just a gas, that guy. One of the nicest people ever to be around. We were surprised when we found out that guys like Eddie with Pearl Jam and Jerry with Alice in Chains and Kirk Hammett with Metallica…all these guys are nuts for our music! We were asking them, “Why do you like what we do?” And they said, “Are you kidding? We grew up with your music!” And it suddenly made sense to me, because I grew up with the Beatles and the Stones – I still idolise those guys. I see Ringo on a regular basis and he’s still an idol to me, of course! So, I get it now and it’s really nice and very gratifying and very humbling when people love what I’ve done. It means a little bit more when you get to this point in your career and you’re seeing some kind of a finishing line.
It’s a ridiculous number, 3,000! Actually, Eddie Vedder told me that the Ramones, who were known for playing a ton of shows, only did 2,800 in their career! He just said, “My god, this is just ridiculous.” But the thing with Elton is, we’ve always done an insane amount of gigs pretty much every single year. We always did more than most people did each year.
EJ.com: Take the Rolling Stones, for example. Their tours are always big news, but they don’t tour every year.
DJ: And also, the amount of gigs they do is less. The same with Paul McCartney, who I recently went to see at Dodger Stadium. I just loved the show, but I noticed on the back of the t-shirt it said, “World Tour”…and it was 27 dates! I thought, “Shit, we do more than that in California, or the New York area!” [laughing]
I’m not saying one’s better than the other; it’s a different dynamic. It’s certainly a lot easier on them than this thing of us doing four or sometimes five shows a week! At our age, that’s a lot of shows. But I am not complaining. I love the shows, they’ve really been great.
EJ.com: Have you spoken with Elton about this achievement?
DJ: I sent him an email that said, “3,000 shows…f***!” And his response to me straight away was, “My God…that’s a lot of shows!” It’s pretty wild to think that I’ve done that many shows with a guy like him, you know? I mean, no one else is out there doing that many gigs.
EJ.com: You’ve played a variety of instruments on stage over the years…
DJ: Yeah, an electric 6-string, an electric 12-string, an electric sitar, the double-neck slide guitar, an acoustic 6-string and an acoustic 12-string. And of course, banjo and mandolin. Oh, and I’ve played a G-Sharp guitar as well, that’s a small-scale guitar. More obscure instruments can be hard take on the road, honestly. They don’t always hold up too well.
EJ.com: Elton names his touring pianos, do you name any of your guitars?
DJ: We do. Obviously “The Captain” is the Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy one. One of my Les Pauls is called “No Holes” because, wait for it, it doesn’t have any holes in it. And one of the other Les Pauls is called “The Preacher”. It’s quite a spiritual-sounding guitar. It’s one of those where you want to get on your knees and thank God for it. And there was a double-neck that was blue when we got it so we called it “Big Blue”. Or “The Whale.” It was so heavy it’s ridiculous. And it was a disgusting blue color so we changed it to white. I still use it on stage sometimes. And the mandolin is “Mandolisa” – it was designed and painted by Rick’s wife, Traci. There are others, but those are the ones off the top of my head.
EJ.com: I recently watched your first concert with Elton. After you, Elton, Nigel [Olsson, Elton's drummer] and Dee did your set, the orchestra came out but you stayed on stage.
DJ: Because I’d played on Madman Across the Water, they wanted me to be a part of the orchestra as well. So, I was playing mandolin on Holiday Inn and acoustic guitar on all the other stuff. I was right there next to Herbie Flowers, the bass player, and also Alan Parker, the electric guitar player on that date. And then Ray and Barry Morgan, the drummer. So we were like the “rock and roll” section, if you like, in the middle of the whole thing.
EJ.com: You did that show just a few weeks after you finished your first album as a member of the band, Honky Château. It’s like you were thrown in the deep end a bit.
DJ: I was thrown right in the deep end on every single thing we did [laughing]. It was “learn as you earn”. It’s the same way as when I get new ideas when I’m on stage. For example, the way that Levon has totally taken on this gargantuan, Mack truck of a song…that just came from one night of me screwing around and going, “Well, I’ll just play a solo in here and we’ll see what’s gonna happen.” It just grooved from there and now it’s built up to this giant thing. It gets bigger every night; the crowd just goes nuts. The only problem is, it’s in the middle of the set and then you realize, “F***, I’ve got another hour and a half left…I better keep this standard [for the rest of the show]!”
EJ.com: It’s not even Levon anymore, after a while.
DJ: Exactly, exactly. That’s a good thing, though. I think that’s a very healthy thing: to take something and give it different clothes and different lighting and make it a different animal. The crowds seem to like it, and that’s the main thing.
EJ.com: With 3,000 shows under your belt, I’m amazed that you can play some songs that have been in the setlist since early on without phoning it in.
DJ: I think when you have a vehicle that’s really, really great, song-wise, you can change it up. You can make it something special for yourself every night. You don’t have to say, “Oh, here we go again.” You don’t have to play it the same way. And that’s something that Elton welcomes; he doesn’t want it to be the same every night.
There’s a lot to consider but I think we know enough about what we’ve done in the past to know, especially on a Farewell Tour, what to do. People are going to want to hear certain things and we might not be delivering all of that – we’d be there for days – but at least we’re delivering some of that. As I said, I went to see McCartney recently. You know, there were a couple of things I wish he’d done, but the whole concert was so wonderful and he’s so iconic anyway, that I’m like, “Okay, I’m happy with what it was.” The whole vibe was so great, and that’s what we’re trying to put out also.
EJ.com: I am going to ask you to be selfish for a moment. What songs would you as a guitar player like to play that maybe you don’t get a chance to?
DJ: Whew, that’s hard. There are different genres…different songs that have been a pleasure for me to hear when they are finished in the studio. Things like A Word In Spanish – that blew peoples’ brains out when I did that solo in one take. Also Blue Avenue and Amazes Me, from Sleeping With The Past.
There’s so many, but if you start thinking too much that way…like, “I wanna do that song because it really features me well,” or whatever… You know what? If I can’t make my presence felt in two hours and forty minutes of a set with Elton then I might as well pack it in. And you have to really think more in terms of what makes Elton look good and feel good. I’ve never been the kind of guy to step out and say, “Hey, look at me, this is what I do!” It’s just not part of my whole make-up. It really is a fine balance between how you deal with your own part in the show and how you make the whole thing go over…and that’s always been the most important aspect. When I blast out front in the three or four songs that we’re doing in this show, that’s quite enough for me. If I was doing that every number then people would be going, “Who is this guy?! I thought this was an Elton show.”
EJ.com: And then during your big solo moments, you give out a guitar pick afterward. How do you determine who gets one?
DJ: Really, it’s anyone who looks like, “Hey, that person really needs a pick.” For example, I saw a guy in the audience a couple of weeks ago and he looked like he was never gonna smile through the whole show. Like five numbers in I was looking at this guy and he had my attention a couple of times: “F*** me, he hasn’t even tried to smile!” And then during a number I walked over there and looked at him kind of questioningly and I held up a pick and he was like, “Yeah!” So I threw him the pick and man, I made his year, I think.
But overall, people just love this show. They’re getting a chance to really voice their gratitude for us and their love for us. That’s pretty wild that people are doing that, upwards of 20,000 people a night doing that kind of display of affection. It makes you think, “Okay, this is one of the reasons why I’m doing this as a career.” To get that kind of response is amazing.
EJ.com: One last technical question, as Music Director, do you typically change the mix in your in-ear monitors during a show?
DJ: Not really. Once in awhile I might ask for something during a show, depending on the venue – ‘cos all venues are kind of different acoustically. Like I might want a little bit more bass or more snare drum or whatever. But we always have such a great sound on stage that I really don’t want to screw with it.
EJ.com: And your job is to listen to everybody on stage.
DJ: Yeah. Well, actually…their job is to listen to me [laughing].
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