Elton John’s bandmates in no rush to say goodbye
On the title track of his 1973 chart-topping double-album, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Elton John sings that he “finally decided my future lies beyond the yellow brick road.”
So it is only fitting that after more than half a century on the road, the legendary rocker is winding down his career with a final tour titled “Farewell Yellow Brick Road,” a three-year, worldwide trek consisting of more than 300 shows across five continents. The tour kicked off Sept. 8 in Allentown, Pa., and includes three stops in Boston, Oct. 6 and Nov. 6 of this year, and Nov. 15, 2019 at TD Garden.
Joining John, 71, on his successful journey have been two longtime band members, guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson, who, combined, have logged more than 5,000 shows spanning nearly half a century each with the British pop icon.
“It’s hard to fathom that this is still going on,” says Johnstone, 67, in a recent phone interview. “The other day, when Elton and I were talking, he said ‘How much fun is this?’ And that kind of sums it up for me — that after all these years, we’re still having so much fun.”
Olsson, 69, says that he, too, is “amazed” at the run he’s had with John, which began when he played on the 1969 album “Empty Sky.”
“I’ve been blessed to have been able to do something I love so much for so long,” Olsson says. “We always have great times on tour, but this one is going to be special because, you know, we want to go out with a bang and make people happy.”
With a catalog as vast as Elton John’s, narrowing the set down to 2½ hours was not easy — especially when trying to strike a balance between more obscure material for diehard fans and the expected and highly anticipated hits (think “Bennie and the Jets,” “Rocket Man,” and “Your Song,” just to name a few) for others.
“What I try to do is interject something special into songs every night,” says Johnstone, who in addition to playing guitar and a variety of other string instruments sings backing vocals and is the band’s musical director. “I want to give every member of the audience a special moment were they go, ‘[Expletive], you didn’t play that on the record’ or ‘You didn’t play that the last time I saw you.’ ”
Olsson, who is also a backing vocalist, says the interaction with bandmates never gets old, whether it’s an inside joke about the music they’re playing or a lyric John substitutes into a song. “We’re on the same wavelength when we’re playing together, and I think [audience members] pick up on that. We have such great fans who have been with us and believed in us for so long, and it’s important to us to give back to them what they’ve given us.”
In addition to Olsson and Johnstone, John’s touring band includes keyboardist Kim Bullard, percussionist Ray Cooper, percussionist and backing vocalist John Mahon, and bassist and backing vocalist Matt Bissonette.
While there have been many tour highlights throughout the years, including, for Johnstone, bringing his daughter, Juliet, on stage at Madison Square Garden on her 16th birthday, both Johnstone and Olsson say they will never forget the Nov. 28, 1974, concert at Madison Square Garden, when John Lennon joined them onstage — after losing a bet to John — for several songs in what would be his last live performance.
“He actually came to the Boston Garden, where we were playing before going down to Madison Square Garden, to rehearse some songs,” Olsson recalls. “He was freaking out because he was so nervous.
“We had our own little club, he and I . . . we were the nervous guys,” he adds with a laugh, admitting that he still is a bundle of nerves on show days. “But as soon as I get onstage? Boom. It’s gone.”
On this farewell tour, fans are being taken back in time not only through John’s catalog, but via the backdrop of a virtual reality film that follows John’s career. Olsson calls the production “quite an extravaganza,” and Johnstone says the audience reaction has been “amazing.”
Visual effects and high-tech embellishments aside, it is John’s music — much of which was crafted during the early years with the collaboration of Johnstone, Olsson, Cooper, and the late Dee Murray, among others — that keeps fans coming back.
“The first thing is that he’s simply brilliant at what he does,” Johnstone says. “The very first time I heard him play in the studio all those years ago, in 1971, I was like, ‘Holy [expletive], this guy is really great and doesn’t know it.’ Same goes for his singing. I mean, when you get that kind of talent, it is just unbelievable.”
“The second thing,” he adds, “is that he is willing to work harder than anybody I know. Literally anybody. The guy has been out there for nearly 50 years killing it with his talent — and then there are all of the other things he does for the [Elton John] AIDS Foundation and other charities with which he’s involved.”
Olsson concurs, and adds that what also keeps fans coming back — now with their own children and sometimes even grandchildren — are the songs that, for many, are part of the soundtracks of their lives. “People have memories about things like where they were when they first heard this song, or what they were doing when they heard that song.”
The Edinburgh-born Johnstone, who lives in California with his wife, Kay, and has seven children, is focusing on the current tour rather than what comes after it. “When you have a passion like ours, you don’t really consider retiring,” he says. “And you know, I have a deep suspicion that there’ll be an odd thing here and there if we’re still around.”
Olsson, a native of Wallasey, England, who lives with his wife, Schanda, in California and has two children and two grandchildren, is also hopeful that this final tour isn’t, well, so final.
“Let’s put it this way: I hope we do another farewell tour,” he says. “Farewell tour version two.”
At TD Garden, Oct. 6 and Nov. 6, 2018 (both sold out) at 8 p.m.; Nov. 15, 2019 (tickets onsale Oct. 19). 800-745-3000, www.tdgarden.com