Saturday, November 19, 2011

Q&A With Elton

Last month, Elton John played his 3000th concert (at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas). Now he's about to head to Dunedin for a concert that offers the statistically inclined musician the chance to add another entry to a long list. Shane Gilchrist asks the chart-topping, globe-trotting performer a few questions.

Q It is claimed your forthcoming Dunedin concert will be the most southern date you will have performed. However, I'm sure you've played more exotic (read strange) locations. Can you recall a few such performances?

ELTON JOHN: The Dunedin date will indeed be the southernmost concert I have performed so far. And I think the most northerly concert I have played is Trondheim in Norway, which I played in 2003, closely followed by the Faroe Islands in 2010. Probably the highest concert I have played is the top of the mountain concert in Ischgl, Austria, an open-air venue that is 2300 metres above sea level.

As well as hundreds of sports-related stadiums, I've also played food and drink-related venues such as the KFC Yum! Center and the Dunkin Donuts Center America, the Coca-Cola Dome in South Africa and the Hope Estate Winery in Australia.

I've played breathtaking historical sites such as the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza in Mexico, the Temple of Ephesus in Turkey and the Coliseum in Rome, and I'm looking forward to getting away from the English winter by playing in the sunshine in beautiful Honolulu, Hawaii, in January.

As a lifelong compiler of lists and recorder of statistics, I enjoy milestone achievements, such as my Vermont concert in July 2008 when I achieved playing at least once in all 50 states of the USA. Then in October this year I played my 3000th concert, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Now I'm trying to break the record for the number of countries played, and so later this year I'll be playing for the first time in Indonesia and Malaysia, and next year I'll be playing my first ever concerts in Peru, Costa Rica and Panama.

Q Do you have a rough set-list in mind, or do you like to keep audiences guessing? Will the Dunedin concert be a mix of career classics as well as some newer material, perhaps songs off your last album, The Union (with Leon Russell)?
A We try to create a set list that will please everyone. These days, concert tickets are certainly not cheap, and we strive to put on a show that is worth every penny of the ticket price. So if you are coming to my show for the first time you can expect to hear the big hits, lots of songs you know, and also one or two lesser-known album tracks from both my recent and early albums.

Q The Union and your debut album, 1969's Empty Sky, might be separated by some 40 years, yet there seems to be an enduring musical connection that can also be found on albums such as 1972's Honky Chateau, a spirit of the American South perhaps? Have you always been drawn to such music; eg, rolling pianos, earthy rhythms, brass sections and gospel choirs?

A In a word, yes. [Co-writer] Bernie Taupin and I have always loved both country and gospel music and, in fact, on the very first day of the recording sessions for The Union, [producer] T Bone Burnett sat us all down and played a wonderful recording of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson at the Newport Jazz Festival. I like to think the spirit of that recording permeated the sessions.

Q Did those sessions with Russell and, significantly, too, Burnett, perhaps remind you of the primal power music can have? That is, without all the hype/trappings of the entertainment industry, do songs and performances require honesty and artistry if they are to be judged of lasting value?

A Yes, because I am, and always have been, a musician - it's both my job and my life. So to be working in the studio with Leon, my all-time musical hero, and to have T Bone bringing his extraordinary production talents and musical pedigree to the project ... for me that is the ultimate combination of integrity and honesty. And we haven't even mentioned the session musicians - all hand-picked by T Bone for their consummate playing skills.

Q The honky-tonk trappings of The Union aside, are you still a sucker for a good ballad (aren't we all)?
A Definitely. In my new Las Vegas show, "The Million Dollar Piano", I've brought Blue Eyes back into the set. We haven't played that one for many years, but the audiences certainly seem to enjoy it. I love all the ballads on The Union; I'd be hard-pressed to name my favourite.

Q Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) are often held up by critics as two landmark albums in your career, but are there other records that resonate more strongly with you - either for artistic or personal reasons? Are there any albums, or songs, you feel have been overlooked and are worth re-exploring?

A Obviously, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a very important album for me. It contains so many songs that are regularly in my live show Funeral For A Friend, Candle In The Wind, Bennie and the Jets, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting ...

Captain Fantastic is another of those statistics I love so much: the first album ever to enter all three American charts at Number One.

Lately I've been playing songs from (1971 album) Madman Across The Water - the title track, Tiny Dancer and Levon, and we have also included Indian Sunset in the new Las Vegas show.

I guess different albums resonate at different times. The Empty Sky album contains what I always think of as Bernie's and my first decent song, Skyline Pigeon, and then I love The Union because it not only reunited me with Leon Russell but it turned out to be exactly the album I hoped for. My entire studio album catalogue lies in between those two, and each one of them has some special association.

I am very fortunate to have always been perceived as an album artist, and so my album tracks have been played regularly over the years, and not just the hits. However, aside from the very well-known early albums, if you were new to my catalogue I would recommend Blue Moves, Too Low For Zero, Made In England, Songs From The West Coast and, of course, The Union.


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