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The old drummer boy comes to town for a rare show with his Roundheads
by Rip Rense

          Rev. Ringo Starr’s Peace and Love Express rolled into a tiny converted movie theater in L.A. June 29, and the minions greeted him with peace signs, toothy smiles, bellowed requests, and a touch of wide-eyed incredulity.
          This was, after all, a Beatle---performing at the mid-town El Rey, on the edge of Koreatown, on a cramped stage with his latter-day band, The Roundheads. The same guy who once banged along with pre-Beatle Rory Storme and the Hurricanes. The same guy who was once regarded as the best beat drummer in Liverpool.
          At an astonishing 65 years of age, Ringo is. . .astonishingly vigorous, buoyant, practically incandescent. He cavorts, he jokes with charm as fresh as it was in “A Hard Day’s Night,” and he sings very ably, thank you---often with real musicality, not merely half-chanted lyric.
          The Ludwigs are no longer bashed and crashed with manic head-shaking Ringo-ism, or even with late ‘60s Abbey Road-esque creativity, but in the all-too-rare moments that the Old Drummer Boy abandons front-man position to play them, it counts. For instance:
          During “Choose Love,” the droll retro-rocker from his new album of the same name, Ringo joined the very able Roundheads drummer (who, along with the rest of the band, was never introduced) for the latter part of the tune, and the difference was immediately noticeable. The house suddenly filled with a serious backbeat. It suddenly. . .rocked.
          For the rest of that tune, you could see why Ringo was the “best drummer in Liverpool,” and why The Beatles really gelled off after he joined. There is that inimitable Starr quality (Phil Collins calls it the Ringo “drag,” I believe), which stretches the tension between the kick drum and snare to the point of near-suspense. And when the kick drumbeat falls, it drops like King Kong’s right foot.
          As KLSX-FM “Breakfast With the Beatles” host Chris Carter, who introduced the band (leading the crowd in a chant inspired by Ringo’s solo spot in The Hurricanes, “it’s Ringo Starr Time!”) confirmed: “You felt a huge difference in the house when he started playing.”
          The evening was a benefit for the Lotus Foundation charity, and a plug for the new album, which is, amazingly, the fifth collaboration with co-producer Mark Hudson and the Roundheads. (Point of trivia: "Roundheads" is the Brit nickname given to big supporters of the Parliamentarian cause in the English Civil War, owning to their Beatle, er, pageboy, haircuts. The Royalists, on the other side, were nicknamed Cavaliers.) At one point, Ringo remarked, “I’m really blessed to have the Roundheads in my life,” and he wasn’t blowing smoke. He was probably the last person to think he would ever be happy in another band, turning out albums that do him credit as a singer, drummer, and part of a songwriting team. Let alone while in his sixties!
          But so it has wonderfully turned out for Mr. Richard Starkey, who adroitly and winningly assayed his “greatest hits” and a few more recent items. The El Rey was small, jammed, hot and sweaty---a kind of overgrown Cavern Club, perhaps---and Mr. Backbeat paused to towel off frequently. (He later took to flipping the used towels into the crowd, and noticed that when he asked for one back to mop off again, that it had been torn into pieces. Shades of Beatles bedsheet squares!)
          The set list: “A Little Help From My Friends” bridge, with Hudson shouting “Ringo Starr,” into “It Don’t Come Easy;” “Octopus's Garden,” “Choose Love,”
“I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Don’t Pass Me By,” “I’m The Greatest,” “Give Me Back the Beat,” “Memphis In Your Mind,” “Photograph,” “Never Without You,” “Back Off Boogaloo,” “Boys,” Roundheads only version of “You Can't Do That" (Gary Burr singing lead), Roundheads medley (Hudson singing lead) of “Long Tall Sally,” “I’m Down,” “Oh Darling;” “Yellow Submarine,” “Act Naturally,” “With A Little Help From My Friends” with special guest background vocalists Jeff Lynne, actor Gary Oldman, comedian Richard Lewis, Doug Fieger (The Knack), TV host Pat O’Brien.
          For this writer, the highlights were several, beginning with the rarely performed “Octopus’s Garden,” here so faithfully recreated, and so joyously sung by Ringo, that you could close your eyes and almost imagine it was. . .that band. This was a gem of a rendition, down to the simulated Ringo drumming (complete with original fills) and the close approximation of George Harrison’s dandy guitar solo and comping.
          “Never Without You,” the tribute to Harrison from the excellent “Ringo Rama” album, was just lovely. It’s a graceful, finely crafted song, with sincerity and heart, and all were in evidence (helped by a mix that for at least this moment, was clear and balanced.) This is a tune that, while containing clear George references (and Beatles history), has generalized qualities of a eulogy and remembrance. Ringo sang it with obvious emotion.
          The final highlight was, of all things, a brief improvisation toward the end of the show. It began with Rev. Ringo’s invoking the recurrent “peace and love” blessing---then turning it into a chant, which almost became a song. Then The Roundheads actually did turn it into a song, with Ringo singing lead, for about 30 seconds. Hudson gave a surprised look at Starr afterward which unmistakably said, “do we have a new one?”
          Except for a mix that too often blurred and muddied the sound and occasionally buried Ringo’s lead, the rest of the concert was really just a celebration. The John Lennon-penned “I’m The Greatest” was tightly performed, rousing---conjuring spontaneous audience shouting of the “Hey!” bits. Ringo's own “Don’t Pass Me By” found him starting out at piano, as he did on the last All-Starrs tour. The new album’s tunes were less compelling (far less, in the case of “Give Me Back The Beat”) than Ringo’s recent work, but it hardly mattered. The Roundheads’ Beatles tunes must be mentioned, as well---especially Hudson’s utterly fabulous, manic singing on “Long Tall Sally/ I’m Down/ Oh Darling.” If McCartney can sing “Oh Darling” in concert half as well as Hudson, he’d be advised to add it to the set list, as it’s a knockout live tune. Another point of trivia: it was Richard Lewis’s birthday (saluted by Ringo during the show) and he looked plainly moved to be a part of the “Little Help” chorus, singing his heart out.
          The only serious criticism, aside from the mix, was that there was not nearly enough of Ringo’s drumming, which one suspects might have something to do with recovery from shoulder surgery last fall. Still, the fact that he is laying down the fatback at all at his age is a gift. And one that promises to keep on giving. As Rev. Ringo told a recent interviewer:
          “The blessing of being a musician is you can go until you drop. As long as I can hold those damn sticks, I’ll be fine. I might be playing the blues, but I’ll be fine.”

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