You take a Beatle any way you can get one, and in the case of Ringo Starr, an audience with one-quarter of the Fab Four comes as a package deal.
On Wednesday night in North Philadelphia, the much-loved Liverpudlian led his All-Starr Band into the Met Philadelphia, the newly refurbished Broad Street opera house whose classiness seemed to impress the entertainment lifer. “This place was so posh,” he said, calling attention to his red velvet blazer after opening the sold-out show with a cover of Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” “that I decided to dress up a bit.”
Come 2020, the Beatles will have been broken up for half a century. (Get ready for that commemoration.) But this year Starr is celebrating the 30th year on the road with the All-Starr Band, a unit with a rotating cast of characters that has included such luminaries as Joe Walsh, Billy Preston, Levon Helm, Nils Lofgren, and Sheila E.
It’s a good gig. Along with backing up Starr on his indelible, utterly charming Beatles and solo songs, they get to sing three or four of their own hits, while being employed by a bandleader who seems to be one of the nicest, most easygoing mensches in showbiz. Chances are, he pays pretty well, too.
This year’s All-Starrs are not the most illustrious. Along with drummer Greg Bissonette and horn player Warren Hamm, the four excellent musicians who take turns in the spotlight along with Starr include Greg Rolie of Santana on keyboards, plus guitarists Colin Hay of Men at Work, Steve Lukather of Toto, and Hamish Stuart of the Average White Band. (The latter two also switch off and play bass.)
Of the 26 tunes played over the course of a breezy two hours at the Met, Starr — who is light on his feet and seems fabulously fit — stood front-and-center and sang lead on 11. He took a seat behind his drum kit on all but two of the others. He was happy to settle into his familiar role as a supporting player, when not stepping out on featured Beatles moments such as “What Goes On,” which he noted is the only song credited to Lennon-McCartney-Starkey, and “Don’t Pass Me By,” the first Starr solo composition the band recorded, on 1968’s The Beatles.
The show was structured so that another Starr turn was never too far away. But it also made for some jarring juxtapositions, with Lukather delivering middle-of-the-road cheese with Toto hits like “Hold the Line” and “Africa”; Rolie singing Santana standards “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va”; Stuart leading the way on taut, largely instrumental AWB cuts like “Pick Up the Pieces”; and Hay — the standout vocalist of the show — performing “Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now?” (One chief takeaway: Men at Work > Toto.)
Starr was charming and agreeable, promoting “Peace and Love” at every turn, in words and hand gestures. “The good vibes start at the top,” Stuart said, pointing toward the man on the drum riser.
Starr introduced “Boys,” as “a song I sang with my other group … Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.” And he did in fact sing that cover version of the Shirelles’ 1960 hit with his previous Mersey Beat group before going on to also take the lead on it for the Beatles version in 1963.
That was a reminder that Starr was a (minor) star in his own right even before he joined the Beatles, and he’s always comes across with a goofy self-confidence that instantly puts his audience at ease. Certainly he’s one of the few 79-year-old men alive who could sing “You’re Sixteen” — a Johnny Burnette cover, from 1973’s Ringo, the only Beatles solo album to include all four band members, because who could say no to Ringo? — without coming across as lecherous and creepy.
By the third go-round of non-Starr tunes, the show started to drag and became something to endure more than enjoy, with the crowd impatiently calling for “Ringo!” between songs.
But all was well once the Beatle came down off his drum throne and back into the spotlight. He closed it out in style, first with the wistful “Photograph,” his 1973 hit written with George Harrison. That was followed by the Beatles’ cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally,” a reminder that the band often showed its affinity for country music through Starr, quite happy to proclaim himself “the biggest fool to ever hit the big time,” even if it’s far from the truth.
The show came to a close, of course, with the house lights up, and Sgt. Pepper’s “With a Little Help from My Friends.” By then, the good vibes were everywhere, on the faces of a mom singing along with her 6-year-old son to my right and the grandmom shimmying as she grinned from ear to ear to my left. That Beatles magic was in the air, and everyone in the room was Ringo’s friend.