About the time that Ringo Starr pulled three kids out of the audience sporting homemade Sgt. Pepper-styled shirts, as his All-Starr Band launched into “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and Wimberley troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard came out to sing along, it was pretty clear what kind of night this had been at ACL Live.
That was the finale of a two-hour show, and really the whole thing was pretty much a blowout party, from the moment Starr and his six-piece backing band charged onstage just past 8 p.m. sporting all manner of goofy masks, a skeleton-cranium helmet and, in drummer’s Gregg Bissonette’s case, a gorilla suit. Did you really think Ringo’s crew wouldn’t dress up for Halloween?
Kicking off as usual with “Matchbox,” the Carl Perkins tune that Ringo sang on an early Beatles recording, the band yukked it up in their holiday costumes for the duration of the first song. “That’s enough of that!” Ringo declared, tossing aside his cartoon-animal mask as the band broke into “It Don’t Come Easy,” his first post-Beatles hit as a solo act.
The country-ish “What Goes On” — the only song that was a co-write between John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Starr, as he noted at the outset — followed, completing Ringo’s three-tune turn out front before taking a perch on the riser next to Bissonette for double-drummer theatrics. The baton was passed to the rest of the All-Stars, with all four of the other front-line players getting turns to do well-known songs from their own musical journeys.
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Todd Rundgren, whose All-Starr tenure began 25 years ago in the second lineup of Ringo’s ever-evolving revue — the current one is the 12th — stepped out first with “I Saw the Light,” followed in quick succession by Santana keyboardist Gregg Rolie with “Evil Ways,” Toto guitarist Steve Lukather with “Rosanna” and Mr. Mister’s Richard Page with “Kyrie.” This is a big part of what the All-Starrs have always been about: Ringo may be at the center, but a good half of the show features hits from the friends he brings along on the road with him.
Rundgren’s goofy lark “Bang the Drum All Day” — with Rundgren, Starr and Bissonette all playing drums, plus multi-instrumentalist Warren Ham on cowbell — served as the perfect transition to a song Starr sang from behind the drum kit. The Shirelles hit “Boys,” Ringo’s only lead vocal on the first Beatles album, began a three-song stretch of Beatles tunes, with “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Yellow Submarine” bringing the show to a festive midpoint and a short break from the stage for Starr.
Rolie led the rest of the band on the Santana staple “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen,” a drawn-out version that gave most of the musicians a chance to take solos (and gave Ringo a slightly longer breather backstage). Rolie, who has lived in the Austin area for many years, got the “hometown boy” shout-out from Starr early on, and he wasn’t the only one onstage with local and regional ties. Ham — who performed admirably all night on keyboards, percussion, saxophone and clarinet while hitting the high notes in Toto songs that Lukather can’t reach — is a Fort Worth native whose 1970s band the Ham Brothers included Austin keyboard ace Red Young.
Ringo returned for a quick one-two of “You’re Sixteen” and “Back Off Boogaloo” before the show hit a back stretch that revealed this lineup’s limitations. Toto’s “Africa” and “Hold the Line” were big hits, as was Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings,” but they also remain emblematic of an arena-rock bloat that ultimately holds a little too much sway over the current All-Starrs set lists. Rundgren’s Utopia nugget “Love Is the Answer” (a 1979 pop smash for England Dan & John Ford Coley) helped to offset that a bit, as did Page’s lovely acoustic ballad “You Are Mine,” the rare non-hit in the program. Somewhat surprisingly, Starr played none of the new songs from his recent release “Give More Love” — kind of a shame, as the record has some good moments.
Dependably, though, Ringo brought it all back home for the grand finish. His 1973 single “Photograph” remains the best song he ever wrote, and it sounded fabulous with the full support of the All-Starrs (especially Ham’s saxophone solo). A romp through the Beatles-via-Buck-Owens favorite “Act Naturally” built the bridge to the inevitable “With a Little Help From My Friends” finale, which included the surreal sight of hometown hero Hubbard not only singing along, but also pulling out his cell phone and filming much of the memorable scene onstage. Who could blame him? Hey, you’re onstage with Ringo.