ATLANTA — Ringo Starr’s hands must be cramping by now.
No, not because of the drumming. The former Beatle, who’s bringing his All Starr Band to Atlanta, arguably flashes more peace signs than any other celebrity. Whenever you see Ringo, you see those two fingers.
“Isn’t that a good thing?” Starr said recently as the band launched its current tour in Niagara Falls, Ontario. “I’m glad. I felt it then in the middle of the ‘60s. There was a shift, and the shift was for peace and love. ... We had a great movement then. And I’m really still with it.”
While flower power wilted for some, it’s Starr’s driving force, one that permeates his approach to live music. The All Starr Band, a concept he first unveiled in 1989, is a musical commune of sorts, with Starr sharing the stage with a rotating roster of hit makers.
Earlier versions featured Cream’s Jack Bruce and the Who’s John Entwistle thumping bass. Clarence Clemons and Edgar Winter have blown sax. Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles both soared with the All Starrs. Peter Frampton and the late Levon Helm are also among the who’s who of 20th century rock ‘n’ roll that have gone out on the long and winding road with Ringo.
This time around is no different — a card-carrying Beatle has access to the pick of the litter. Genre-buster Todd Rundgren sings and wrangles multiple instruments. Toto guitar hero and vocalist Steve Lukather brings mastery. Gregg Rolie, a founding member of Santana and Journey, displays his organ and singing prowess. Mr. Mister frontman Richard Page sings and plays bass. Acclaimed session drummer Gregg Bissonette and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Mark Rivera, a longtime member of Billy Joel’s band, help hold down the fort.
Various members sing their own hits, and Starr leads the charge with Beatles and solo tunes, including songs from his latest, “Ringo 2012.” It’s the equivalent of one of those mail-order compilation discs.
The most endearing aspect of the All Starr experience may not be the music at all, but the fact that Starr isn’t basking in his own personal spotlight. With a big enough catalog to create his own arena spectacle, Starr said he simply wants to play.
“I get the opportunity to be the entertainer up front (performing) ‘With a Little Help From My Friends,’ but I also get the opportunity to play my kit with all these other great musicians and to their songs,” Starr explained. “So it’s a win-win situation for me.”
“When the Beatles broke up, he just missed playing,” said Rundgren, who’s having his third go as an All Starr. “Ringo kind of lives to play. ... And I think he truly enjoys the interaction with new musicians and playing their material. ... So he really does, in a way, need to play in order to feel normal.”
The eclectic mix of material proves demanding for all involved, jumping from the roof-raising raucousness of Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day” to the laid-back groove of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” With Rivera at the helm, the band spent an intense 10-day rehearsal period in Niagara Falls.
“It’s live and it’s all real, so there are a lot of hats to wear in one show,” Lukather said. “It’s a challenge musically for everybody, and I’m having a blast doing it.” With five lead singers in one band, Rundgren said they’re extremely happy with the vocal harmonies. And that harmony is seeping into the band itself.
According to Rundgren, the togetherness is evident offstage. The night Nik Wallenda walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls, Rundgren said the plan was for the band to reconvene in Starr’s hotel room after the show to watch the stunt. The iconic drummer is “just one of the guys,” Rundgren said, and prefers to be treated that way.
Yet, when you’re surrounded by a group of musicians who bow to the Fab Four, the temptation for a sizable head must be strong.
“I don’t get caught up in that,” Starr said. “Everybody knows I’m in the band, I know they’re in the band, and they know we’re in the band. It’s not like, ‘Hey, I’m the big shot.’ We have a thing like they’re all the best musicians, but I’m the greatest, which goes with the song that John Lennon wrote for me, which we do (laughs). So that’s the atmosphere we sort of play with.”
The playful peace lover will be waving those famous fingers on tour through the end of July.
“We’ve tried the other way for 20,000 years,” Starr said. “I still truly believe that peace and love is the only answer.”