Sir Richard Starkey, the former Beatle drummer known as Ringo Starr, turns 79 in July. He’s a great-grandpa and can afford to do just about anything, but insists on traveling the world with groups of famous friends.
Since 1989 he’s enlisted musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Joe Walsh, and Todd Rundgren to join him on stage, because it’s a lot of fun.
His latest All-Starr Band includes: Santana’s Gregg Rolie; Toto’s Steve Lukather; Men at Work’s Colin Hay; former David Lee Roth/Woody Herman drummer Gregg Bissonette; sax, flutist and singer Warren Ham; and Average White Band bassist, guitarist and singer Hamish Stuart, who returns after a decade away.
They joined him last night (Mar. 21) at Harrah’s, a casino in Valley Center, north of San Diego. If you missed it, fly to Japan, for nine shows there. The blast from the past variety show feels like a surreal two-hour car ride or the best wedding reception ever.
After thanking the adoring and mostly graying crowd, a lean, almost tiny Ringo opened with “It Don’t Come Easy,” his big hit from 1971, (written by Starr with discussion by George Harrison about God, Krishna, and peace). This was after the Beatle breakup, and many were surprised when Starr had the post-hit.
Forty-eight years later, Starr and his current band mates groove and shine, especially Ham on sax.
“They do it every night,” Starr says with a beaming smile and wiggling hips. People from the crowd yell “I love you Ringo!” and he replies “I love you too.” The theme of the show is always love and peace, and Starr’s T-shirt has a sparkling peace sign and the word ROCKS below. Over the years he’s flashed so many peace signs there are Ringo memes and Gifs galore.
Even his dorky step-left step-right side-steps and pacing are loveable. “I walk around like this ‘cause I forgot which song was next,” he says, before the rich vocals and country beat of “What Goes On.”
If we know the songs by heart, we don’t mind that the vocal mix is a tad muddy. Our brains will fill in. We sing along too. Still, the songs we grew up with, while listening to an ancient radio or tape deck, sound much bigger and complicated in this two-hour show.
Rolie performs lead vocals and plays Hammond organ in “You’ve Got to Change Your Evil Ways” as he did with Santana in 1969, as Starr plays drums, who often strikes a stick horizontally. With his curly hair and earring, Toto guitarist Lukather is Carlos Santana’s doppleganger and takes the double-timed coda and solos. The band conjures Santana again in “Black Magic Woman” later in the show. The faster Lukather plays, the more he licks his lips, which is hilarious to watch on the giant TV screens.
Odds are, folks jammed into the Harrah’s Event Center, with 2,200 seats, no rake and no sightlines, are risking their lives, driving on squirrely country roads because they love Ringo. If they were not Toto fans, they are now.
Everyone stands, except for those who cannot, and the cranky woman in my row, for Lukather’s return to “Rosanna,” with Starr and Bissonette double drumming.
Lukather works up a sweat on guitar, and gets a boost from Mr. Ham who screams on sax and hits the tough tenor calls. Toto’s “Rosanna” won a Grammy for best song in 1983, and it’s a winner performed live.
Starr says he and his band mates do this for fun, not to be tortured, and it shows. They often appear to forget us, as if jamming at a friend’s palatial home. They clearly enjoy reprising their old songs, especially Stuart who performs like it’s 1974 again, taking the lead in Average White Band’s funky “Pick Up The Pieces” and early disco “Cut The Cake.” Both tunes remain timeless and danceable. Shuffle your play list.
Stuart introduces his Scottish-Australian friend, Colin Hay, who admits, “I went down under,” and the band dives into that familiar tune “Land Down Below,” as Hay leads the crowd in hey-oh, hey-oh, hey-oh-ee-ay-oh.
Hay reveals many gifts in “Overkill” too, a song we’re pleased to hear again with his fine guitar work and phrasing. The song has poetic imagery and an emotional bridge that gives us chills. His acoustic solo versions are easy to find on YouTube. Better to catch him live at Humphrey’s By the Bay in San Diego on May 3.
On this date in 1963, The Beatles’ debut album, “Please Please Me” was released in the United Kingdom by Parlophone.
The fifth song on the album is “Boys” by the Shirelles, and the fast rocker was the first time many had heard Starr’s voice as a lead singer. He hasn’t forgotten the 12-bar “hey, hey, bop shoo wa, bop bop shoo wa.”
His journey as a musician has been rocky, and critics are everywhere. Still, when Starr says “they don’t need me,” pointing to his band, and starts to sing “Don’t pass me by, don’t make me cry, don’t make me blue…” it’s tough not to cry. From the 1968 double album The Beatles, also known as the White Album, “Don’t Pass Me By” was his first solo composition.
Starr wrote the song at home when he was fiddling around at the piano. For the Harrah’s show 56 years later, he sings directly to the front row, and the oompa-beat is infectious.
The line, “I’m sorry I doubted you, I was so unfair, you were in a car crash and you lost your hair,” is part of the “Paul is Dead” legend, a whacky story about Paul McCartney’s fate. In truth, the expression “to lose one’s hair simply means to become upset.
For a few minutes we forget we’re in a gambling casino, until the room heats up and the smell of cigarettes seeps into the ballroom. One can remember those days when people smoked everywhere and everyone liked the very strange song “Yellow Submarine.”
“We all live in a yellow submarine, yellow submarine, yellow submarine…” Starr directs the call and response, “Capt. Where are we headed?” and we answer without a hitch “in our yellow submarine…” And we wave our hands with fingers in peace sign mode. Okay, we’ve joined a happy, peace and love cult.
Starr and The Beatles didn’t worry about that song. Come on, there was an animated musical fantasy comedy inspired by the music. And they didn’t worry about songs referencing 16-year-old girls. But we have evolved socially, and it is unsettling to watch a 78-year-old man ask if there are any young girls in the audience. Dear Mr. Starr: Please update your intro for the adorable and harmless song “You’re Sixteen (Your Beautiful and Your Mine).” Thank you.
The All-Starr Band’s biggest test is Toto’s “Down in Africa,” with that booming refrain “I bless the rains down in Africaaaaa…” We couldn’t discern most of the words back in 1983, and we still can’t. The thrill of hearing it live is a crazy good electric clarinet section by Ham, and soaring vocals by Ham and Hay that outdo young dudes. Live is always better. We note the distinct separation of instruments, and harmonies are sweet.
Star and his All Starr Band mates are generous when giving song credit, such as “Work to Do,” by the Isley Brothers. And they mix up the set with hits, such as circling back to Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” made famous by Santana.
Blond drummer Gregg Bissonette is the super glue, a conductor who communicates by opening his mouth extra wide.
Lights are blinding in “Hold the Line,” that slow-dance song about love not being on time. The Toto hit from 1978 by David Paich was too romantic for many proms back then, and unless you went to prom, it was saccharine torture to listen to live.
Starr’s most potent offering is “Photograph,” a bittersweet song that is an emotional trigger no matter your age.
For Starr it must carry extra weight as he and Paul McCartney are the last of the Fab Four. For the audience, the enduring song marks time with simple lyrics that sound like a letter.
“Every time I see your face it reminds me of the places we used to go. But all I’ve got is a photograph and I realize you’re not coming back anymore…”
He tries to make a smooth transition by saying he tries to act naturally, which spills into the song by that name. The band enjoys the country sound of the tune made famous by Buck Owens.
As we approach the finale, Starr laughs with happy folks in the front row, as if following a script and says, “Just kick it in lads.” They jump into “With a Little Help from My Friends,” the group’s signature send off. Starr leads the call and response, and it feels good. “Do you need any body? –I need somebody to love.”