For about 30 seconds it seemed like Ringo Starr’s 70th birthday concert at Radio City Music Hall earlier tonight was over. An incredible assemblage of rock stars including Yoko Ono, Joe Walsh, Steve Van Zandt, Brian Johnson, Jeff Lynne, Nils Lofgren, Max Weinberg and Foreigner’s Mick Jones had just left the stage following a massive singalong rendition of “With a Little Help From My Friends” that felt like the grand finale to an incredible night. Then, just as the house lights threatened to rise, a roadie brought out Paul McCartney’s signature Hofner bass and the sell-out crowd went into absolute hysterics. When McCartney himself ran onstage and burst into (of course) the White Album‘s “Birthday,” the screams reached a decibel level rarely heard since the Beatles stopped touring nearly 45 years ago.
Two hours earlier the concert began just like hundreds of other Ringo Starr concerts over the past two decades: The Beatle and an assortment of “All Starr” musicians took the stage and opened with the drummer’s 1971 solo hit “It Don’t Come Easy.” To qualify as an All-Star, a rocker has to be the singer on at least two well-known hits, and play an instrument that rounds out the band. This year’s crop includes keyboardists Edgar Winter and Gary “Dream Weaver” Wright, guitarists Rick Derringer and the Romantics’ Wally Palmer and bassist Richard Page of Mr. Mister. On paper the set list — where Beatles classics like “I Wanna Be Your Man” and “Boys,” are joined by 1980s pop like “Broken Wings” and “Talking in Your Sleep” — may seem like the playlist from a demented Bar Mitzvah in 1986, but somehow it all flows quite naturally onstage.
The MVP of the evening was Derringer, whose spotlight tracks “Hang On Sloopy” and “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” were clear highlights, and whose killer guitar chops elevated every single song of the evening. Derringer’s former bandmate Winter was also a quintessential part of the ensemble, playing everything from saxophone to drums to a giant keyboard strapped around his neck. It’s hard to imagine how many times he’s played “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride,” but he delivered them with incredible gusto and got a standing ovation each time. Wright brought out “Dreamweaver” early in the evening, but his voice isn’t what it used to be and it didn’t quite take off. Palmer came alive with the Romantics’ 1979 classic “What I Like About You,” while Page seemed to struggle a bit to hit the high notes on “Broken Wings.”
Ringo wisely never let too much time pass without taking a turn at the mike. All-Starr band standards “Back Off Boogaloo,” “Act Naturally,” “Boys” and “Yellow Submarine” were supplemented by two tracks from his new album Y Not. It’s hard to believe he’s now 70, since he still leaps around the stage like he did 20 years ago and his voice is as strong as it ever was. “Photograph” was particularly poignant, both because it addresses the passing of time and because it was written by George Harrison,” a fact that added special meaning to lines like “I want you here to have and hold as the years go by and we grow old and gray.”
Midway through “Broken Wings,” a murmur erupted through the hall as many of the rock stars in the audience suddenly got out of their seats and began walking towards the lobby. Out of the darkness came Johnson, Walsh, Lynne, Ono and more big names. Ringo’s son Zak stepped behind the drum kit as a small army of rock stars took the stage to sing backup on “A Little Help From My Friends.” It was incredible, but not the finale everybody was praying for, which came mere minutes later when McCartney arrived to accompany Ringo (on drums) for the rollicking “Birthday.” It was sadly the closest thing to a Beatles reunion possible these days (the two had previously teamed up at a benefit in April 2009). At the end, with Yoko beaming on the side of the stage, Paul and Ringo embraced before walking offstage to what must have been one hell of an afterparty.