||August 13, 2001
Ringo Starr and Bill Wyman: Expert Sidemen
Shrug Off Status
By ANN POWERS
ock 'n' roll is enjoying a green old age.
Punk gave it a whipping in its middle
years, and hip-hop has certainly superseded it
in the role of communicating essential urges.
But a three-chord stomp can still get a crowd
jumping, and concerns about cultural
relevance fade when such basic pleasures
Yet any star who rides rock 'n' roll to the
center of cultural relevance quickly faces a
crisis, for that high never lasts. It's even
worse now that the music television networks
so quickly make musicians' lives into history,
contained within narratives that demand neat
conclusions. Elder rockers who do retain their
currency usually do so through music that's
about facing an endgame: Bob Dylan staring
down mortality, U2 courting resurrection.
Last week saw two stars deeply challenged
by their own historical standing return to the
New York area to prove their vigor and make relevance seem irrelevant.
Thursday, Ringo Starr brought the seventh edition of his All-Starr Band to the
PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., while Bill Wyman led the New York
debut of his Rhythm Kings on Friday at Town Hall. Both survivors shrugged
off their status and stressed the fun of rock made not so much for mythic
meaning as for a good time.
Mr. Starr's concept was brilliant in its obviousness. Most pop artists have only
a few peaks in their careers. Why not unite several, allowing them to revisit
their high points and elevate one another even more by association?
The All-Starr Band changes with every tour and includes luminaries lesser
than the Beatles but big enough to shine for about three songs per night. It is
the living embodiment of that old fantasy about the great bands that must be
jamming in heaven. Mr. Starr wisely decided not to wait, creating groups odd
enough for the afterlife while their members could benefit from them on earth.
This year's All-Starr Band included Greg Lake of the 1970's bands King
Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer; the 1980's synth-popster Howard
Jones; the percussionist and former Prince protégée Sheila Escovedo, known
as Sheila E.; Roger Hodgson of the progressive- pop group Supertramp; and
Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople, one of the great glam-rock bands. Individually
these artists would struggle to convince a crowd that they weren't outmoded,
but together they could renew the crowd's taste for them.
Mr. Starr also gained from this approach. In the Beatles, he was the genial
one, not driven by his need to express but tickled when given a turn at the
microphone. Thursday's set let him sustain the role of special guest at his own
show. He sang Beatles favorites including "Yellow Submarine" and "With a
Little Help From My Friends" alongside solo hits like "Photograph" and the
John Lennon-written "I'm the Greatest." But he seemed content behind his
drums as his mates took their turns, acting like just another guy lucky enough
to make the charts sometimes.
The highlights were not entirely predictable. Mr. Hunter delivered on Mott's
"All the Young Dudes" and "Cleveland Rocks" and was daring enough to try
one new song. Mr. Hodgson sounded surprisingly fine on Supertramp hits like
"Give a Little Bit." The show stealer, however, was Ms. Escovedo, who is a
far more versatile percussionist than was sometimes evident in her lingerie-
wearing Prince days. Not just her solos but also her drumming throughout the
night, in sync with Mr. Starr's own ingenious style, stood out.
Musical versatility wasn't the point at Mr. Starr's show, which gained energy
from the fun of reignited star power. Mr. Wyman, once the most notoriously
modest member of the Rolling Stones, used a different tool to minimize the
irritating patina of his own fame. His Rhythm Kings featured few former
Top-40 residents, instead highlighting the solid virtuosity of veteran roots
rockers. Focusing on early rock chestnuts and some worthy but obscure songs,
the Rhythm Kings made a case for classicism over stardom's glamour.
This band wasn't made for heaven, but for a lucky stumble into a nondescript
English pub where masters past caring for fame gather for the bliss of one
another's company. Mr. Wyman's neat idea played down his own importance
by honoring the artists who had preceded and inspired the Rolling Stones. The
band consisted of top-notch but not necessarily famous players, including the
guitarists Albert Lee and Martin Taylor, the vocalist Beverley Skeete and the
horn players Frank Mead and Nick Payn.
The group did include two celebrities — Georgie Fame, once a pop idol in
Europe, and Gary Brooker, who led Procol Harum and did a 1997 tour with
Mr. Starr's ensemble. These two keyboardists and vocalists did not stress past
triumphs, although Mr. Fame showed off his still-supple voice on a version of
"Georgia on My Mind," which he first recorded in 1981, and Mr. Brooker
performed a stirring version of his group's "Whiter Shade of Pale." Mostly, like
the bandleader, they joined in a true ensemble effort, nurturing the roots of the
music that gave them what prestige they've enjoyed.
The set list leaned toward the obvious, including versions of "Mystery Train,"
"Hit the Road, Jack" and "Good Golly Miss Molly," songs already overly
familiar to anyone who has eaten in a chain restaurant or attended a few
sporting events (though the group's enthusiasm and skill did restore some
excitement to them). More intriguing were songs by J. J. Cale and Dan Hicks,
also vintage but not so worn.
By putting the whole of rock 'n' roll before his own accomplishments, Mr.
Wyman gained the integrity of relative obscurity. Mr. Starr, generously sharing
his halo of fame, achieved the same effect. Perhaps because these two
musicians spent their crowning moments as sidemen, smiling behind even
bigger icons, these graceful leaps came naturally to them. At any rate, their
success is proof that rock 'n' roll can sustain its patriarchs.