Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band
DPAC, Durham
Sunday, June 22, 2014

Ringo Starr first took his All-Starr Band on the road in 1989, which means they have been around twice as long as the Beatles, or, as the drummer put it to a rapturous DPAC crowd last night, “that other band I used to be in.”

That wasn’t the night’s only irony. When I left the building following the rousing finish of “With a Little Help From My Friends,” for instance, it was Toto’s “Africa” that remained in my head. Indeed, it was the kind of night where the hard-to-pin-down sensation of being in the room with an actual Beatle coexisted uneasily with the how-did-I-get-here sensation of hearing live versions of music of a far more earthbound plane.

These days, the options of experiencing authentic Beatle-ness are down to two: You go see Sir Paul at the Enormo-dome, as he defies time, wows with his songbook, hits all the right notes and plays many of the greatest Beatles songs. Or you can see Ringo and the All-Starr Band, a much looser affair based on the super-group paradigm and drawing from a narrow swath of Beatles songs.

Therein lies the not inconsiderable rub.[jump]
It’s hard to love the songs on which Ringo sang the lead in the same way as those sung by the other three. Ringo’s songs were always a bit of fun, sure, but not many really touch the heart. Depending on who else is on the bill, you’ll either be in heaven or in for a rough night. Put it this way: Knowing that Steve Lukather of Toto is an All-Starr Band stalwart and will be taking up lead guitar and vocal duties does not quite prepare you for the moment when audience members rise to their feet upon hearing the opening strains of “Rosanna,” while you remain seated in curmudgeonly defiance. I wish I could say there weren’t other such awkward moments, but sure as Richard Page of Mr. Mister sang and played bass in this iteration of the All-Starr Band, they were part of the bargain.

Still, Todd Rundgren was on hand as he has been for many tours, and that was good. A lanky, animated presence on rhythm guitar, Todd’s spirited take on “I Saw the Light” was an early highlight. Since it was the Philadelphia-born polymath’s 66th birthday, I hoped he might have been turned loose to do a few extra numbers, but the pie chart was maddeningly well apportioned between him and his fellow Starrs. At least we got to sing him “Happy Birthday.”

Clad in black with signature dark shades and a glittery peace-sign T-shirt, Ringo was trim and smiling and genial. Peace and love came up a lot, and he double-flashed the V-sign often. Freed from his drums for most of his solo numbers, microphone held loosely in one hand, Ringo sang a half-dozen songs from the earliest Beatles days, like “Honey Don’t” and “Act Naturally.” He brought the crowd to its collective feet for “Yellow Submarine.” Surprisingly, songs from his quite successful solo career in the early ’70s were in short supply.

That said, the night’s most poignant moment (and certainly its most Beatle-esque) was a rousing rendition of “Photograph,” the 1973 smash he co-wrote with George Harrison. The rich, melancholy chords and anguished, heart-rending lines—“as the years go by and we grow old and gray”—surely resonated with a large segment of the crowd.

In that moment, the sense of being in the room with a Beatle gave way to the sense of actually connecting with him—last night, a rare if wonderful occurrence.