You know who Ringo Starr is. You know where he’s been, and what he’s done. You probably know that for the last 25 years, he has toured regularly with a rotating All-Starr Band of famous friends, playing some of his own hits and letting them play some of theirs.
You might know that when he’s not touring, he’s making new music. That he continues to put out new records every few years or so.
You might not know that these records – half a dozen since the '90s – have been the best, most consistent, most consistently entertaining of his solo career. Track after track of varied but uniformly expertly crafted power pop, brimming with energy, wit and Beatle-y flourishes.
Which is why, as I sat waiting at Wolf Trap Thursday night for the bass player from Mr. Mister to finish up with “Kryie,” I began to think: What if, instead of sharing the setlist with guys from Toto and Santana, Ringo gave us a couple hours of straight Ringo? He could do the songs he sang in the Beatles, his '70s solo hits and the highlights since then. Share some stories. Tell some jokes. There’s more than enough material.
I mean, I enjoy “Africa” as much as the next guy. But if I’m paying $60 for a spot on the lawn, I’d rather that particular $2.40 went to “Back Off Boogaloo.”
Ringo, if you’re reading this – well, first of all, hey, cool! I have all your records! But, second: You’re a Beatle. You’re really going to let Richard Page workshop an absolutely nondescript new country number, and leave “Octopus’s Garden” at home?
But to paraphrase the music critic Donald Rumsfeld: You don’t review the show you wish you had seen. You review the show that was on the stage.
So, Thursday’s show? It got off to a rollicking start with Ringo’s take on Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” and then his own “It Don’t Come Easy.” It was nice to hear the bouncy “Wings,” a relatively obscure ’70s cut that he remade for his most recent record, "Ringo 2012."
The amphitheater, while wet until showtime – “It never rains on Ringo,” he explained – was sold out. So there’s the economic argument for not fixing what isn’t broken. I should add that the guys seemed to really enjoy each other, so maybe the whole thing is none of my business.
The 13th All-Starr Band is virtually the same as the version he took to the Meyerhoff in Baltimore two years ago: Todd Rundgren, Steve Lukather of Toto, Greg Rolie of Santana and Journey, and Page, of Mr. Mister. They’re all players – Rundgren, in particular, is a genuine musical genius, and Lukather an all-world guitar ace – so the music was tight.
And a funny thing about Ringo: He’s always been more of a personality than a singer, but his voice has grown stronger in the last couple of decades. So his live vocal Thursday on, say, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” was more assured and more musical than it was on the Beatles’ studio version half a century ago.
He was slim in black jeans and a black T-shirt with a glittery silver peace sign; the stage was illuminated with projections of stars, flowers and more peace signs. He appeared comfortable as master of ceremonies; the enthusiastic, multigenerational crowd howled at his every quip. As when he introduced “Boys” as a song he sang with his other band: Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. And crowed about his line, “You were in a car crash, and you lost your hair”: “You know, when I wrote those words, I thought, ‘Watch out, Lennon and McCartney.’”
(Rundgren was also amusing: “Back at the Rams Head again … What a difference a month makes.”)
The Ringo songs – from the Beatles and his solo records – were, in fact, the highlights of the show. Put “Rosanna,” “Kyrie,” “Africa,” “Broken Wings” and “Hold the Line” into the same setlist, and you’ve signed us all up for a whole lot of same-sounding midtempo classic rock. It took a shuffling “Don’t Pass Me By,” the rockabilly “Honey Don’t” and a singalong “Yellow Submarine” to provide some variety.
(Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light” and Rolie’s three Santana songs – “Evil Ways,” “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy” and “Oye Como Va” – performed the same service. It was on the Santana songs, stretched into jams, that Lukather’s melodic guitar wizardry was most welcome.)
While we’re at it: If I’m looking at Todd Rundgren, I want to hear some Nazz. I don’t know if he does that stuff, or wants to. I guess he has to do “Bang the Drum All Day,” which, interestingly, required four percussionists. But let’s have “Open My Eyes,” which has the benefit of sounding like a Ringo song. And “Hello It’s Me.”
“Kyrie” is a perfectly nice song. People enjoyed it, it was all over MTV, it sold a billion copies. Plus, it’s the rare overtly Christian pop song that isn’t mawkish or overbearing – a real accomplishment. It just isn’t my thing. Maybe it’s yours. Horses for courses.
Finally, it was back to Ringo to close, with a revved-up “Act Naturally,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and a sweet final touch: The chorus of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” The folks that walked out of there? That was one happy crowd.
It Don’t Come Easy
I Saw The Light
Bang the Drum All Day
Don’t Pass Me By
Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen
You are Mine
Oye Como Va
Love is the Answer
I Wanna Be Your Man
Hold the Line
With a Little Help From My Friends
Give Peace a Chance