What would you do to create the best Beatles tribute band? First, include an original Beatles member. Then, add five of the greatest rock and roll musicians of all time. Better yet, make three of them original members of other famed bands, a group capable of four tributes. The Beatles’ Ringo Starr did just that, something he’s done for many years, using changing personnel who have included Peter Frampton, Levon Helm, Paul McCartney, Billy Preston, and Stevie Nicks. Starr’s Fifteenth All Starr Band consists of Edgar Winter (Edgar Winter Band), Colin Hay (Men at Work), Steve Lukather (Toto), Hamish Stuart (Average White Band), Paul Bissonette, and Warren Ham. They hit Virginia Credit Union Live at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia on September 20 as part of a 37-stop tour of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Several of these musicians have played together for several tours and have a seamless blend of talent, virtuosity, enthusiasm, and intensity that should make any so-called “senior” proud, as the players range in age from 65 to Ringo’s sprightly 82, with an average age in the seventies.
They played to a near-capacity crowd with youthful vibrancy for an audience that ranged from young children to elders. The audience returned the band’s enthusiasm. Calls of “I LOVE you Ringo! from various reaches of the venue received a quick “LUV you too, brother” or “LUV you too, luv” from the deeply resonate, slightly-raw, familiar-to-most-everyone voice of this one of the remaining half of the Fab Four.
Ringo’s impressive drum kit sat regally on a raised section at center stage, with Paul Bissonette’s drum kit nearby and to his left. Starr would move back and forward on stage throughout the performance, first playing a typically-rock-steady beat from above, then providing lead vocals below at center stage. Edgar Winter, at 76, was another roamer, going from his keyboard at the far left of the stage to playing stand-up synthesizer, saxophone, and percussion at the center, including during one “solo” period when Starr exited the stage. Among his performances, Winter expanded upon, if that’s possible, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and triumphantly expressed his universally-known “Frankenstein,” a tune most everyone has heard even if they don’t know what it is. About the Berry classic, Winter said, “You all know it. But, you never heard it like we do it!” It was a rocking, brilliant take on the song, while “Frankenstein” was a screamer with a hard-electric heart at its core.
Winter is also known for the ubiquitous song “Free Ride,” (“Gonna take you on a free ride!”) and his work with his famed rocker brother, Johnny Winter, both of whom were born albinos and were easily spotted over the years by their long white hair. Edgar performed “Free Ride” and told the crowd that he was working on a tribute album to his deceased brother. Winter is also a friend of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and produced, arranged, and performed in the film “Mission Earth,” with music and lyrics by Hubbard. And, this was not Winter’s first appearance with a Beatle, as he and George Harrison had once combined in a Miller Lite beer commercial. During the show, Winter shared cheerleading duties with Ringo as they urged-on the crowd to dance and them to dance and to follow 82-year-old Ringo as he showed how they should jump up and down. “No, not like that, like this!, “Starr said, bouncing higher.
“Down Under” is another iconic tune that many may not realize was a huge hit by the band Men at Work, rich in its Australian details and lead singer Colin Hay’s compelling and ranging voice. “Do your come from the land down under/Where women glow and men plunder?/Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?/You better run, you better take cover.” Hays said something like this before he began the song, “When people ask if I ever regret a career in rock and roll, I mention how I have had a great life with nice homes and cars and most everything paid for by this song.” Hay’s voice sounded perhaps as strong as ever as it rose and descended through a demanding range. Other “Men at Work” hits performed included the also ubiquitous “Who Can It Be Now.” (“Who can it BE now, who can it BE now?”) and “Overkill.”
Scottish-born Australian-American Hay, who now divides his time between homes in St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia and Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles formed the group with fellow acoustic musician Ron Strykert. Much later, Strykert allegedly made a death threat against Hay. Hay is now the only continuous member of the band, in addition to his work on the Ringo All Starrs and as a solo performer. Hay has also made numerous appearances as an actor on series on NBC, CBS, and BBC, among appearances.
A song of each originating artist was featured toward the beginning of the show with others of their songs to follow. Chills went up some spines upon hearing the lyric “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you/There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do/I bless the rains down in Africa/Gonna take some time to do the things we never had/(ooh, ooh),” from Toto’s “Africa.” another song now part of the cultural soundscape. Renowned guitarist Steve Lukather, an original member, represented Toto on the All Starrs. Lukather has strongly influenced fellow guitarists including Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page and can be heard on records of Boz Scaggs and Michael Jackson, including “Thriller,” among others. Lead vocals had not been considered his forte, so Lukather shredded guitar while Warren Ham appeared to handle the high notes.
Ham has also played with Toto as well as Kansas and The Four Seasons. He also took John Travolta’s part in “You’re the One that I Want,” while on tour with Olivia Newton-John. Besides vocals, Ham played saxophone and flute during the concert.
“What were you doing in 1971,” Hamish Stuart asked the crowd, adding “Tell me, I don’t remember.” Stuart is an original member of Average White Band and led performances of well-known songs including the electric R & B-ish “Cut the Cake” “Pick Up the Pieces,” and “Work to Do.” He’s also performed with artists including Aretha Franklin and Chaka Kahn, was in Paul McCartney’s band, and has written songs for Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross among others. He’s considered one of the world’s top guitarists and is known for his vocals as well.
Rounding out the band was Gregg Bisonnette on drums, playing in Starr’s stead at times, along with him at others, and doing drum duels with Winter and Ringo. He is the brother of bassist Matt Biosonnette, with whom he often performs. His career includes having played on the first three of David Lee Roth’s albums.
The performance was a mix of Beatles tunes as well as those of Ringo himself. The song were scattered throughout the show, with Starr at the center and several large stars projected on the scrim behind him. Dressed simply and slimly, largely in colors of red and black, he was scoutmaster and merry prankster. Bissonette would point both his sticks toward him as if to say “he’s the man” or “he’s the Starr!” Starr’s dark resonate voice was at the heart of the songs he sang, and most Beatles lovers would recognize it immediately. Sometimes considered the fourth Beatle or the unknown Beatle, it was unfair and inaccurate to consider him so. He more or less owns the songs he’s led on, and he’s written songs of his own that have become part of today’s musical lexicon, not to mention his un-selfconscious, mischievous wit, and lively interactions with the world.
As a Beatle, Starr sang lead vocal on “Yellow Submarine” and “With a Little Help from My Friends.” He also wrote and was lead singer on Beatles songs “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Octopus’s Garden,” and he co-wrote four others.
At one point, he asked the lights tech, calling her by name, to turn a set of bright yellow lights on to the audience so that he and his band mates could see them better. Once he was satisfied, he had her return to the brilliant stage lighting, anchored always in a few large white stars, that changed with the moods and themes of the music and ended with a flowing flower-child motif for the closing number, “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
The show started with the Beatles cover of Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” followed by two Beatles originals, “It Don’t Come Easy” (“You know it don’t come easy”), led in Starr’s inimitable voice, and “What Goes On” (“in your heart. What goes on in your mind.”). “Later came “Boys,” a Beatles cover of the Shirelles song, a tune Ringo said he’s done at every live set of his career. Then came Ringo’s own “I’m the Greatest,” and then the Beatles hit, identifiable by Starr’s voice, “Yellow Submarine.” And, after a “solo set” by Winter and Stewart, Starr returned. Lukather then crouched by Starr and played opening chords of one of the Fab Four’s most loved songs (say “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”), but Ringo stopped him. “No, not that, he said.” Lukather started again, with another Beatles hit, but Starr placed his hand on the guitarist’s arm and said “no” quietly, looking him in the eyes. A third time Lukther tried, with each start the crowd getting more and more worked up in thwarted anticipation, but Ringo said, “No, not that one either,” until finally the player started again, and his leader said, “That’s it!” and launched into “Octopus’s Garden,” another Starkey signature hit. He noted that the song had to do with water as did “Yellow Submarine” before it. “I guess I’m the water boy,” he said with his deep, slightly-drawn-out Cockney vowels. Besides the references to water, these songs are key Lewis Carroll-type pleasure-drops in the Beatles repertoire.
“What Goes On” is credited as written by “Lennon, McCartney, and Starkey.” Starr related to his audience that he made a suggestion to his mates. “Hey, I’ve got an idea! Why don’t we reverse the order on this one.” (i.e., Starkey, McCartney, and Lennon). “And, they said,” as he slowly drew out his vowels, “SOD off!” (Sod is a British term of dismissal, variously considered respectable or profane.)
“Well, it’s about time for this one,” Starr then said, as he began his own “Back Off, Boogaloo.” Several songs later, following Men at Work’s “Overkill” and Toto’s “Africa,” came the Beatles cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Work to Do.” Starr said, “This was an early one, from the white album,” but then added, addressing the crowd, “No, not THAT white album.) He added that The Isley Brothers have long been favorites of his. Then, he called to the crowd, “How many young women are out there?” The call received a loud response of female voices. But, then he said, “That doesn’t sound like much. I said, how many YOUNG WOMEN are out there?” This time, there was a roar. “All right!,” he said, “this is for YOU, and ALL you other women out there!” He then began, “I Wanna Be Your Man!” as the band joined in and the crowd cheered.
Later, the roughly 1 1/2-hour set closed with three Beatles and Ringo songs. First was the well-known Ringo original “Phonograph” (“Every time I see your face,/It reminds me of the places we used to go.”), then a Johnny Russell cover that was made a huge hit by the Beatles, “Act Naturally,” and closing the show with a crescendo was “With a Little Help From My Friends,” seemingly sung along with by the entire raceway amphitheater crowd.
The crowd somewhat unsure as they clapped for an encore but seemed to sense there might not be one. Like other shows on the tour, Ringo and his All Starrs perhaps felt this was a moment of closure, a final coming-together of Ringo along with a little help from his friends, the end of a flawless evening of some of the best of rock and roll, bringing history to life again.
Ringo, born Richard Starkey, now Sir Richard Starkey, grew up in a tiny brick row house in a crime-ridden inner-city, working-class Liverpool, England neighborhood, one of the oldest and poorest, amid coal-dust and hardship. His childhood was an especially tough one, contracting peritonitis and, later, tuberculosis, hospitalized for a year and later spending two years in a sanitarium, where he was introduced to percussion instruments in order to join the hospital band , where he began his love of music. His childhood has been described as Dickensian. His father (Richard Starkey or “Big Ritchie”) and mother were ballroom dancers. Hard-drinking and dancing Big Ritchie left the family before young Richard could develop memories of him. His mother worked as a barmaid for 12 years in order to support them. Due to these and other setbacks, Ringo remained illiterate by the age of eight, but he persevered and graduated secondary school, where he did well in drama and art. This was followed by early employment as a railroad worker, machinist, and waiter before playing in skittle bands and later becoming a member of the Beatles.
He went on to become one of his country’s most distinguished citizens, knighted by the Queen and one of the world’s best-known and most successful musicians, a member of a band whose output has been compared in its importance and brilliance to that of the likes of Beethoven and Mozart. And yet, as evidenced in this concert, Sir Richard carries himself without pretense and with youthful enthusiasm.
The night was a veritable Ringo Bingo with his audience the winner and songs falling like stars caroming off the flashing flippers of a pinball machine, punctuated with pings, pongs, and bright lights, held together with the bounce of sticks off stretched membrane, and a mesmerizing mix of familiar melodies and well-known lyrics. Then, the lights came up like a quiet thud and streams of fans, many in Beatles and Ringo t-shirts and most with smiles remaining, filed out through the International Raceway’s vast parking lots into the darkening night.