Last month's release of a new Ringo Starr live album inspires the opportunity to explore an overview of his live recordings. Live at the Greek Theatre 2008 is another document of his periodic "All-Starr" tours. It's the sixth such compilation and, surprisingly, Starr's 8th live album.1
The first, 'Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band' (1990, Rykodisc), was my first "solo" Ringo album on CD. This was a big comeback for Starr, after his 1981 comeback album flopped somewhat, and his 1983 follow-up didn't even have U.S. distribution. The All-Starr concept fits him well, giving him the ability to headline and sing his well-known songs, and then act as emcee for the other artists' solo turns. This first album lived up to its name, with Billy Preston, Dr. John, two E-Streeters, two Band members, an Eagle and superstar sideman Jim Keltner. For Starr's selections, he did four of his solo hits and "Honey Don't" from the Beatles.
The second effort came in 1994, documenting the All-Starr's appearance at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. "I've always been known as an old jazz man," Ringo quips at the intro. The lineup has changed, this time with two Eagles, Dave Edmunds, Todd Rundgren, Nils Lofgren and Burton Cummings. This is the lineup I saw live at the Ohio State Fair. There are definite misfires, including Joe Walsh croaking "Desperado" and Rundgren's dull, overwrought "Black Maria". To Starr's credit, there's no overlap in the songs from the first disc. This time it's two solo cuts, three Beatles crowd-pleasers and two new songs form his comeback studio album, 'Time Takes Time'.
Sadly, this is where my personal gap begins and I must fill it in with research. I've taken a pass on most of the live Ringo out there. The third All-Starr outing only found its way to the bargain bin at Blockbuster Music stores (remember those?). It's Mark Farner, Randy Bachman and John Entwistle out with Ringo this time, whose repeats begin here in earnest. Although this volume is hard to find, most of the tracks found their way to the three disc box set 'The Anthology...So Far', which is also the only place you can find an All-Starr rendition of his second hit - "Back off Boogaloo".
Taking a break from the All-Starrs and touring, Ringo appeared on "VH1 Storytellers", promoting his latest studio album 'Vertical Man'. The show, available on CD and DVD, and is a nice mix of his career, with four live versions of songs from my favorite of his modern (post-1990) solo records. It's only surpassed as a career document by the concert he gave for PBS' "Live at Soundstage", also on CD and DVD, which is longer and has seven Beatles songs, four early solo and four modern solo songs.
Back to the All-Starr concept in 2003, he came up with Paul Carrack & Colin Hay and scrounged around for some other 80s leftovers. The highlight is the addition of "Don't Pass Me By" to the set list, while otherwise sticking to the tried and true. Three years later he's back with Rod Argent, Edgar Winter and Billy Squier. That brings us full circle to the Greek Theatre in 2008. Winter, Squier and Hay have returned, joined by Gary "Dream Weaver" Wright and Hamish Stuart. Stuart's inclusion is interesting to me, as he was part of Paul McCartney's studio and touring band from 1989-93 (Macca's own comeback). Starr's froggy "It Don't Come Easy" at the opening made me nervous for what was to come, but his throat clears and it's a nice set from him and particularly the solo spots the band members. It's also the only live appearance of Starr's forgotten 1974 hit "Oh My My" (save for a song from his 'Liverpool 8' album, the rest of Starr's selections are repeats).
What's next for Ringo Starr live recordings? Hopefully we'll get his 70th birthday concert from this year, featuring a slightly altered All-Starr lineup and a surprise appearance by Paul McCartney. Other than that, there aren't many songs he's left behind, other than "Matchbox" (inexplicably) and "Good Night" (waiting for the symphony tour?). He rightfully avoids anything from 1976 - 1983, the creative, critical and popular nadir of his career. I admit a personal fondness for his 1981 album 'Stop and Smell the Roses', but he's right to play his popular stuff with his newest material mixed in. He is, after all, just Ringo, and while rejoice when McCartney does some catalogue dipping, it would be absolute death for Ringo to pull out his disco stuff. So, the new 2008 album's good if you want the All-Starr experience. If you want the most Beatle tunes, it's the Tour 2003 CD. If you want the best all-around live Ringo (and yes, there is such a thing), I recommend Live at Soundstage. All but the latest live Ringo CDs are out of print, but most are downloadable on iTunes.
1Starr's live discography is confused by several releases that seem official, but may not be, or that had such poor distribution so as not to be noticed.