To say 2016 has paved the way for a full circle for late 80s (and early 90s) pop star Rick Astley would be quite the understatement. At the age of 50, hot on the heels of his 2nd UK #1 album (his first #1 album since his groundbreaking debut) aptly titled “50“, Rick Astley is back on American stages and more importantly, back in the hearts of ardent fans. His resurgence has been a slow one though. In fact, it dates back 15 years.
After six years in the limelight, Rick Astley went into voluntary retirement. The relatively lacklustre performance of his 4th album “Body and Soul” (despite the fact that its second single “Hopelessly” charted in the US top 40) is a likely catalyst for that decision. In 2001, instead of picking up where he left off as the rebranded soulboy that he had morphed into in the early 90s, he briefly flirted with his pop roots albeit within a cloak of modernity. The end-product was the album “Keep it turned on“. The timing of its release, at least in theory, seemed wise given that 2001 was the 4th year of the 80s revival. Sadly, its limited release in Continental Europe ensured that Rick Astley’s popularity (whatever little he regained through the minor hit “Sleeping” off the “Keep it turned on” album) would be limited to a rather narrow realm of the consumer market for pop music. A few years later, he released an album of covers titled “Portrait“. This album, rather unsurprisingly went unnoticed. 2007 marked an inflection point for Rick Astley when his signature hit single “Never Gonna Give You Up” become a viral hit via a phenomenon popularly referred to as “Rickrolling”. While his status as yesteryear’s star had not changed, his signature single had become an essential and ubiquitous element of contemporary pop culture. He started performing live again at festivals along with his contemporaries. The one thing that became obvious to those that paid attention to this gradual resurgence of Rick Astley is that he wasn’t trying to stage a comeback. He just did what he felt like and had fun with it. His musical endeavors did not reek of desperation. That attitude along with his charisma and obvious comfort with himself at interviews made him increasingly likeable with every subsequent piece of media exposure. It made people more welcoming of his passive (but not conscious) overtures to fans and skeptics in the media. Towards the end of 2013, he seemed ready to release an album titled “My Red Book“. In fact, one of our guest bloggers reviewed the limited release of the album in 2013 for our blog. Despite, the album’s lead single “Superman” being released in late 2013, the album never saw the light of day (although there are a few copies floating around on Ebay). It is not clear what effect any of these events had on the British success of Rick Astley’s album “50“. The greatest end-result of his rather surprising return to the top of the album charts, is that it laid the foundation for live concerts in the US.
I had the privilege of attending his concert at Town Hall in New York City on October 6, 2016. This was his second American concert in the last 25 years. Rick Astley was undoubtedly faced with the challenge of reconciling two goals that were at odds with each other. The primary goal is to promote the new album “50” but after 25 years of being away from American stages, he was acutely aware of his obligation (probably self-imposed) to fans that attended to hear songs that formed the soundtrack to their youth. He made this awareness very obvious when he said “but you guys don’t care about the new stuff. You just want to hear the old stuff” with a huge smile on his face. Fortunately, Rick rose to the occasion and struck a near optimal balance between the old and the new. In fact, other veteran artists promoting new and relatively obscure material can take a page out of Rick’s playbook when they put together setlists for their concerts. Rick ensured that he flitted constantly between the old and the new. As a result, there were no lulls or “filler” sections in the concert. In fact, Rick made a conscious effort not to perform two consecutive tracks that were obsure. His opening track was “This Old House” (from the new album) but he quickly followed it with “Together Forever” – his second US #1 single from his debut album “Whenever you need somebody“. He maintained this balance through the entire length of the concert.
The first emotion that many in the crowd must have felt during the concert was one of envy. Rick Astley has barely aged. He still looks like a fountain of youth despite being a father to a 24-year old daughter. His voice sounds better than ever. His personality bubbles with a blend of humor, charisma, gratitude, and comfort. His banter with the audience was almost as entertaining as his confident and powerful vocal delivery on each of the songs in the evening.
In recent interviews, Astley revealed that one of the frustrations of being a product of the Stock Aitken and Waterman era (popularly referred to as SAW) in his early years in the music business is that the focus of the musical effort was almost exclusively on creating a record as opposed to playing live. It seemed that at the time, being a pop star was at odds with being a live musician. Fortunately, at his Town Hall performance, he was able to bring songs from the first album (whose recorded versions were drenched in hallmark SAW studio gloss) to life with beautiful live renditions – especially on tracks such as “It would take a strong man” and “When I Fall In Love” ( a Nat King Cole cover). The electric guitar solo on “It would take a strong man” is particularly noteworthy.
Through the introductions to his songs, he gave the audience a fascinating glimpse into his journey as a musician. He talked about his early years playing covers when he introduced his version of “Uptown Funk” (originally performed by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars). While introducing “Cry For Help” (a US top 10 hit from his third album titled “Free“), he talked about the gospel choir singing and trying to encourage a man who was down on his luck while recording the song. He provided a little peep-hole view into his interaction with his daughter while performing a mashup of a track from his second album with Rihanna’s “We found love“. But his most surprising performance showcasing his musical journey was the performance of “Highway to hell” after the encore. It featured Rick Astley on the drums and vocals simultaneously. Many of his ardent fans know that his foray into music was as a drummer. At this concert, they got to witness something that only locals in his hometown in Northern England had the privilege of watching back in the early to mid 80s.
The musical highlights of the evening were the achingly beautiful “Cry for help“, “It would take a strong man“, “When I fall in love“, “Hold me in your arms“, “Pray For Me” (the song from the new album “50” that evoked the most enthusiastic response from the audience), and rather unsurprisingly “Never gonna give you up” – his signature hit single and final song of the evening. He knew the final song was the moment people were waiting most for and he celebrated the end of that anticipation just as much as the crowd did.
For all the praise that I have heaped on Rick Astley , I would not be doing this review justice if I did not highlight the concert’s obvious potential improvement areas. Rick Astley added a fantastic dimension to the concert by taking the audience through his journey as a musician and popstar – and for that he deserves his fair share of credit. Unfortunately, there were two noteworthy omissions from his setlist that may have undermined the completeness of this exemplary endeavor of his. Including a song from his “Keep it turned on” album would have undoubtedly piqued the curiosity of his audience. It would have been an opportunity to showcase his re-visitation of his pop roots in 2001. This was an important piece of his musical journey and the failure to include it was a missed opportunity. His second missed opportunity stemmed from his exclusion of his Adult-Alternative flavored 2010 single “Lights Out“. He could have displayed yet another facet of his musical evolution.
There were two other omissions from his setlist that have nothing to do with this musical journey. The songs are “Don’t say goodbye” (from his debut album) and “My Arms Keep Missing you” (a b-side that was eventually released as a single only in parts of continental Europe). He has performed these songs at live gigs in Asia and he brings them to life very well in a concert setting.
Rick Astley is a reminder of an era in which a popstar could be a small-town talented musician that looked like the ginger-haired “boy next door” with a baritone voice that seemed almost incongruous with his look. His concert explored milestones in the journey of that boy from Newton-Le-Willows (Lancashire) to upper echelons of pop stardom and the audience was better off for it. I am just thrilled Rick Astley is back. He has been sorely missed.
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