Saturday, September 3, 2011

Behind The Scenes with John Mahon - Old Songs Coming Soon...

Spend 14 years as a musician in Elton John’s band and you get to visit every corner of the globe, meet the likes of Tina Turner, Robin Williams and Cher backstage, and perform for vast audiences of adoring fans night after night.


John Mahon, a 1973 graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High School, was hired as a percussionist and backing vocalist for Elton John’s touring band in 1997. To date, he’s played in the neighborhood of 800 concerts, everywhere from Russia to Rio, Dubai to Duluth.

On Thursday, Mahon will be on familiar turf when he appears in concert with Elton at Blossom Music Center, where he attended shows as a teen. He’d been bicycling in the Santa Monica Mountains near his Southern California home — which he shares with his wife, Canton native Pam Tortola — when he phoned one recent afternoon.

Q. When I saw Elton in Youngstown last spring, he was really giving it his all onstage. What motivates him to tour so much?

A. He definitely loves it, no question. He’s told us this over and over, “I want to get out there and play.” He loves to play solo, too, but that’s a little more work for him. The beauty of Elton is he’s not the kind of guy to sit back. He never looks back. He just moves forward with everything all the time. If he just sat back and watched the money come in the mailbox, he’d go crazy.

Q. From different things I’ve read over the years, I get the impression that Elton is a supportive fan of new artists, people like Scissor Sisters, Lady Gaga and Ryan Adams.

A. He runs out and buys all the new music that comes out every week. I remember when John Mayer came out, he said, “I just heard this incredible guitar player, and he had someone go out and buy 10 copies and he gave us each one. He’s done that many times. He tosses a CD at you and says, “You’ve gotta hear this.”

Q. Do you get to spend much time with Elton when you’re touring?

A. I pretty much see him every night. Before we go on, he’s gonna want to come in the dressing room and hang out and dish, of course. The ritual is we show up at the gig a couple of hours before showtime, we go out onstage and check our instruments and make sure everything works; we don’t do a full-on soundcheck because we’ve got it down, plus we’ve got great technicians. Then we’ll go grab dinner and right before the show he’ll come in or send someone to get us and we’ll talk about baseball or whatever the current news is. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes we just act really stupid.

Q. Can you give me a preview of the show at Blossom? I’m guessing it’s mostly all the hits.

A. It is, but we change the tour a bit depending on where we play. In places like England and Germany and Italy, we’re going to play songs like “Sacrifice” and “Blessed,” which were much bigger in Europe than America. There’s a song called “Are You Ready For Love” that was a big hit in England so we always play it there and they go nuts. “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” is bigger over there, too, because another band remade it. In England, they like the sappier songs, you know. In America, we play all the rock tunes. But this time, we’re adding “Holiday Inn” and “Hercules” and “Honky Cat.” We’ve been doing “Madman Across the Water” with a jam session in the middle. It’s really good.

Q. There’s literally hundreds of Elton John songs to choose from.

A. That’s the beauty of the guy. His catalogue goes on and on and on. We’re doing 26 songs in the American set. That’s a lot of material. We play almost a three-hour show.

Q. I’m guessing you went to some shows at Blossom while growing up in Canton.

A. Absolutely. I probably saw Chicago three times there. I was a huge fan. James Taylor, definitely. I think I saw Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young there, too. But I haven’t been to Blossom in 30 years.

Q. Did you own Elton John records?

A. I was a fan of his mostly from the “Madman Across the Water” album. That was the one that really drew me in. You couldn’t help but be a fan of “Yellow Brick Road.” That was such a massive record.

Q. When I saw you with Elton in Youngstown, you looked non-stop busy onstage. Give me a rundown of all the instruments you play.

A. I have a Yamaha DTX system, which is an electronic drumset, essentially. You can play pretty much any sound on it you want, lots of drum samples. I play it on electronic pads, standing up, right in front of me. And then I have all the acoustic percussion — a high-hat and snare drum, cymbals, congas and bongos, a timbale, a mini-gong, an electronic marimba, shakers, cowbell, tinkly bells, windchimes...

Q. So many toys!

A. My job is really cool because I get to color the music. When you’re the drummer, you’re laying down the time and driving the train. When you’re playing percussion, you can float over the top of stuff. It makes me listen a little better, and gives me a chance to be musical. I’ve taken all the original parts from the records that Ray Cooper created — he was Elton’s original percussionist — and playing them the way he did but putting my little spin on them.

Q. I’m sure a lot of celebrities come backstage at Elton John shows. Tell me some names.

A. This question always catches me off-guard. That girl from the pirate movies ... Kiera Knightley. Neil Patrick Harris. Ben Stiller. Pamela Anderson. Gene Hackman, of all people. There’s so many. I never actually met Paul McCartney but when we did a show with him in Hyde Park, he came backstage and said hi to everybody. I just sort of stood there in a stupor.

Q. I was surprised that Elton played in Youngstown. He should come to the Canton Civic Center!

A. We are playing more and more of these smaller venues and he loves it. — La Crosse, Wis., and Duluth, Minn., these weird little places in Canada like St. George. They’re small towns that have really nice venues in them for college sports or B basketball leagues. When an act like Elton comes through there it creates electricity and people go nuts. It’s really good for the city.

- Canton Rep

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