Monday, June 30, 2008

Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band: Reviving the Rock and Roll Revue

In 1989, Ringo Starr toured with a band of well-known rock and roll personalities and dubbed the show Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band. Starr has undertaken a similar trek nine times since, with the 10th edition out on the road now. Last night, the tour rolled into the Capital One Bank Theatre in Westbury (the modern corporate moniker for what was known for years as the Westbury Music Fair), with Starr backed by Billy Squier (lead guitar), Colin Hay (rhythm guitar), Edgar Winter (keyboards and saxophones), Gary Wright (keyboards), Hamish Stuart (bass) and Greg Bissonette (drums).

I had resisted the earlier Ringo tours, feeling like it was a cynical money grab. A little Ringo goes a long way, and while seeing a Beatle is always a draw, Starr doesn't have the catalogue -- in the Beatles or solo -- of Paul McCartney, the other former Beatle that has hit the road regularly since the late 1980s (and whose shows I have found to be outstanding).

Then, last year, I started listening to Wolfgang's Vault, a site with a tremendous collection of live concerts available for free streaming (many of which come from old King Biscuit Flower Hour radio programs), and I heard a 2001 All-Starr Band show. Listening as each of the band members took a turn or two at playing his or her hits, it all sounded like so much fun. (The 2001 version featured Roger Hodgson, Ian Hunter, Howard Jones, Greg Lake and Sheila E., while past tours have included artists like Joe Walsh, Jack Bruce, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Nils Lofgren, Clarence Clemons, Billy Preston, Todd Rundgren, Dave Edmonds, Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Timothy B. Schmit, Mark Farner, Felix Cavaliere, John Entwistle, Peter Frampton, Eric Carmen, Paul Carrack, John Waite, Rod Argent and Richard Marx.) The concert reminded me of something I'm too young to have seen for myself, namely the old Motown reviews, where a gaggle of the label's artists would go out on the road together, all backed by the same band. Tom Hanks did a good job of capturing the feel of a similar tour in "That Thing You Do!" I was intrigued.

So off to Westbury I went, expecting a fun night. And my expecations were met, as the band treated the audience to a fun nearly two-and-a-half-hour concert. At one point, Stuart, who has previous Beatle experience as part of McCartney's touring outfit, mentioned to the crowd that the All-Starr Band has "a great spirit." And it came through during the show.

Starr has a substantial pressence that belies his exceptionally elfin stature. As the ringleader of this traveling circus, he emcees the show like an old Catskills comic, tossing off one-liners, many of which sound like he's used them hundreds of times before, but others seeming like they're improvised in the moment. For the most part, Starr stood out front on the songs he sang, endearingly dorky as he danced in place while he crooned. For the numbers in which his colleagues took over lead vocals, Starr moved back to his drum kit, providing some steady rhythms, but leaving the heavy percussion lifting to Bissonette.

In a telling moment, after the band finished the Average White Band hit "Pick Up the Pieces," Starr said to the crowd, "I wish I had grown-up songs like that." And he had a point. Beyond the heavily George Harrison-influenced Starr solo hit "It Don't Come Easy" that kicked off the show, most of the selections from his songbook felt juvenile compared to the hits played by the rest of the band. While a Beatles throwaway like "Act Naturally" or even a classic like "Yellow Submarine" might induce nostalgic smiles, the songs don't really hold up well to 21st Century ears. And Starr's more recent solo work, including his tribute to Harrison "Never Without You," ode to his home town "Liverpool 8" and advice to the world "Choose Love," are so simplistic musically and on-the-nose lyrically that they have a child-like quality. Endearing, yes, but as I said, a little Ringo goes a long way.

Which is why the rock and roll revue format of the All-Starr Band makes for such a great show. You get your fix of seeing a living Beatle. You get to hear great songs like "It Don't Come Easy," "With a Little Help from My Friends," "Oh My My," "I Wanna Be Your Man" and "Photograph." But before you go into sugar shock from too much Ringo, someone else steps up to the microphone to sing a true rock hit.

Squier provided the old-fashioned, hard-rock element to the evening, leading the band through his hits "Lonely Is the Night" and "The Stroke," and offering a powerful acoustic version of his rocker "In the Dark." Not many people think of Squier as a guitar player, but he consistently offered dead-on licks to the night's songs. I espcially liked the kind of heavy, acidy sound he used while playing the chords to "Yellow Submarine." Winter nearly stole the show with his energetic performances of his hits "Free Ride" and "Frankenstein," as well as his backing instrumnetation, ranging from the atmospheric keyboards on Wright's "Dream Weaver" to the rocking saxophone on Hay's "Who Can It Be Now?" Winter's energy and playfullness was essential to the party vibe of the concert.

I walked away thinking how much fun it would be to see Winter and/or Squier on their own. They both have proven the ability to headline, and they demonstrate it in the All-Starr Band.

Wright provided the Light FM portion of the evening, doing a good job on his easy listening singles "Dream Weaver" and "Love Is Alive." He told a neat little story about how he met Starr while playing on Harrison's "All Things Must Pass Album," and how "Dream Weaver" was inspired by a poem he read in India, having gone there thanks to Harrison's invite. Hay played the two best known hits by his old band Men at Work, a version of the reggae-inspired "Down Under" that removed the "inspired" part of the description from the equation and a faithful take on "Who Can It Be Now?" Hay's major contribution to the night's festivities was providing stellar background vocals, especially, at key times, adding some strength and resonance to Starr's thin crooning.

Stuart, in addition to his acoustic cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You," led the band through the Average White Band singles "Pick Up the Pieces" and "Work to Do" (originally recorded by the Isley Brothers). Like Winter, Stuart really embraced the fun of the evening, maintaining his signature shuffle, swagger and style while laying down the night's bass lines. Bissonette, best known in some circles for playing in David Lee Roth's first post-Van Halen solo band, also seemed to have a big smile on his face the whole evening, often looking over at Starr while the two played together. You could amost read the expression on his face as saying, "Holy crap! Do you believe I'm playing with a Beatle!"

While the band always sounded great and seemed to enjoy playing together, it was sometimes almost disconcerting to watch them on stage. Visually and stylistically, on first impression, anyway, they do come off as a bit of a motley crew. I wonder what the low-key Hay would have said if you told him before his first All-Starr Band gig in 2003 that someday he'd be strapping on a Les Paul and playing power chords while singing "Stroke me, stroke me"? He probably would have thought you were mad. Same for going to Bissonette in 1985 and telling him he'd be playing "Dream Weaver." It was hard to reconcile the uber-nerdy Wright, looking like a less cool version of Art Garfunkel (and that's saying something), balding and wearing a tails-like jacket, across from the tall, albino Winter, with his free-flowing white hair and 1970s rocker wardrobe. Same for Squier, rocker-dude thin and wearing a fashionable retro T-shirt, trading chords with the chubby, folksy Hay, who sported a loose button-down shirt and barely moved from his spot the whole night. To the average rock fan, the whole thing, on first glance, looked like it made no sense.

But musically, it all came together just fine. Everyone made it work. And everyone seemed happy to be there. It's a shame it took me 10 tours to finally get around to catching Starr's ever-changing rock and roll revue. But having finally made my way there, assuming I like the bulk of the members of his next All-Starr Band, I have a feeling I'll be back.

Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band
Capital One Bank Theatre in Westbury, June 29, 2008
With A Little Help From My Friends Introduction
It Don't Come Easy
What Goes On
Memphis in My Mind
Lonely is the Night
Free Ride
Down Under
Dream Weaver
Pick Up the Pieces
Liverpool 8
Act Naturally
Yellow Submarine
In the Dark
A Song For You
Never Without You
Choose Love
The Stroke
Work to Do
I Wanna Be Your Man
Love is Alive
Who Can it Be Now
Oh, My My
With A Little Help From My Friends
Give Peace a Chance (just the chorus)