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Starr + Wyman: Expert Sidemen Shrug Off Status

Ann Powers in the New York Times, 13 August 2001

In recent, separate performances, Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band and Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings stressed rock made not so much for mythic meaning as for a good time.

Rock '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 Punk gave it a whipping in its middle years, and hip-hop has certainly superseded it in the role of communicating essential urges.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 are invoked.

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 1970s' bands King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer; the 1980s' 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 JJ 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. 

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