Most rock stars give you 15 to 20 minutes on the phone. Not Ringo Starr. His publicist granted us a mere five minutes. But we're grateful for the chance to talk to Starr, the former Beatles drummer who's coming to town this week with his All-Starr band which features Steve Lukather, Richard Page, Gregg Rolie, Todd Rundgren, Warren Ham and Gregg Bissonette.
Personable and down-to-earth, Starr had us laughing right from the start of the all-too-brief conversation. When we apologized for dispensing with any informal chit-chat so we could make the most of our five-minute window, Starr joked, "Now you've got three minutes left." But in that short amount of time, Starr, who recently played at the Grammys with fellow Beatle Paul McCartney, said plenty.
"I love playing with the man," he said of the Grammy performance with McCartney. "He is my friend, and he certainly is a fine musician. It was a thrill."
In fact, Starr says 2014 has been a pretty great year so far, beginning with a tribute concert put on by the David Lynch Foundation. The concert, which took place on Jan. 20 at the El Rey in Los Angeles, featured acts such as Joe Walsh, Ben Harper, Ben Folds, Brendan Benson, Bettye LaVette, the Head & the Heart and Jesse Elliot and Lindsey McWilliams of Ark Life. Backed by a house band that featured Don Was, Benmont Tench, Peter Frampton, Steve Lukather and Kenny Arnoff, the musicians paid tribute to Starr and helped launch the Ringo Starr Peace & Love Fund that, as it's put in a press release, will provide "transcendental meditation instruction to tens of thousands of at-risk students, women who are survivors of domestic violence and veterans with post-traumatic stress."
"That was great," Starr, 73, says when asked about the tribute concert. "That was the first time ever that they've taken my songs and all those people came out to do them. David Lynch, the filmmaker, is so cool. What he does for kids and now for veterans is great. You can't not hang out with good people and nice people like that, so that's what I do."
Earlier this summer, Starr launched a tour with the 13th incarnation of what he calls his All-Starr Band. The very first of these bands came together on a whim in 1989.
"For the first one, a man came to me and said Pepsi wanted to put some money into a tour and do I want to put a band together," Starr recalls. "I never thought about it. I said, 'Yeah.' Then I thought, 'Oh god. I don't have a band.' I thought I would call my friends up and go out as Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band. I called Joe [Walsh] and Billy Preston and Dr. John and Levon [Helm]. It's like an orchestra. I had never done it before and was very nervous. Very few bands you see with three drummers. It went on from there. It was such a good experience, I wanted to do it again. All the players in that band went on and did their own tours. I started setting it up in February so people would be free. It's worked like for 20-odd years now. It's great for me because I get to play with musicians I really appreciate."
For the current tour, he's recruited another stellar cast of musicians.
"This band is so great," he says. "It's so like a band. We're all pals and we have a lot of fun together. That's what it's about."
You can expect to hear individual band members play their greatest hits (Rundgren will deliver "Bang the Drum All Day" and "I Saw the Light"). Starr & Co. will deliver plenty of Beatles tunes too.
"People come to see us and they want to see the best 1-800 band in the land," he says. "We have a lot of great tracks. Everybody has hits and everybody can play and that's what we do. You have to be able to play and you have to have had hits from the '60s, '70s and '80s. I have them from the '60s and '70s. We've moved up to the '80s and the '90s even. That's what it's about and that's what I love to do. Guess what? If I didn't do 'Little Help,' would you be happy? You have to do certain songs. It would be silly if I backed off 'Yellow Submarine' or 'Little Help.' They're the hits that people come to see. They come see Ringo and the All-Starrs and they come to have a good time."
Reflecting on the Beatles, Starr says he's not surprised the music has held up so well. A steady stream of reissues continues to capture the attention of new, younger fans, affirming that there's something timeless about the group's music.
"The Beatles music is incredible," he says. "That's what I'm most proud of. It comes out on vinyl and CD and mono. It could come out on broken glass and whatever and people would still want it. The music gets in touch with a generation besides the generations from the '60s. Every generation gets involved if they're interested in music. It holds up. We had great writers and we had four really great musicians."
And when we ask what Starr remembers from those Beatles shows in Cleveland in 1964 and 1966, he starts yanking our chain.
"They were the best shows we ever did," he says sarcastically. "Look, man. We were on tour; it was all so exciting. The whole emotional thing about that tour was great. I can't say those shows were better than San Francisco or New York. I'm not in that business. I love to play and we were well-received wherever we played, and that was the game."
Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band
8 p.m. Sunday, June 29, Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, 2014 Sycamore St., 216-912-7032. Tickets: $45-$135, livenation.com.