There’s a scene in the latest Star Wars movie where Jedi master Luke Skywalker tries to temper pupil Rey’s expectations of future events:
“This isn’t going to go the way you think,” cautions Luke.
That admonition would’ve served fans attending Rick Astley’s concert in Cleveland last night equally well.
That’s because the ups-and-downs of Astley’s career suggest his recent comeback would be little more than a money-making nostalgia trip.
After all, the British singer achieved proverbial overnight success at age 21, while serving as a go-to recording artist for Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW) group. That’s when Rick hit big with his 1987 debut, Whenever You Need Somebody, which contained the international smash “Never Gonna Give You Up”—and notable successor single “Together Forever.”
Sophomore effort Hold Me In Your Arms kept Astley busy overseas…but his profile in America was already on the wane by the early ‘90s. The advent of grunge had precipitated a sea change in musical tastes: People were more interested in “real” flannel-and-denim rockers who bellyached and brooded over down-tuned power chords than in pop stars alternating between sappy ballads and shameless good-time anthems.
It would’ve made perfect sense for Astley to take advantage of the online “Rick Roll” craze of 2008. He could’ve eased out of his self-imposed retirement with a ready-made new album, insulating the resurgence with past accomplishments like “Never Gonna Give You Up.” He could’ve custom-made a traveling oldies act for wistful soccer moms and curious millennials and spent his nights dipping his digits in Sortkwik and counting cash.
But he didn’t.
Instead, Astley contented himself with marriage and fatherhood. No one was more surprised than the Lancashire lad himself when his visage went viral, and he wasn’t about to just drop everything and shift gears in an attempt to capitalize on some silly internet phenomenon.
Astley wasn’t having it.
Instead, the Rickster laced shows on his sold-out U.K. tour with earnest R&B numbers…and cool cover songs so seemingly out-of-character for him that many ticket-holders did double-takes.
Their happy-go-lucky hero had reinvented himself.
So if fans at Cleveland’s House of Blues anticipated ninety minutes of rick-rolling through Astley’s dance-pop discography on Sunday, they had another think coming.
Here are five reasons why you should reconsider Rick Astley, too.
As if you didn't already know what they are.
1. Rick's never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down.
Sure, Rick and his crackerjack band performed the huge hits you remember. But they busted out one of them—“Together Forever”—four minutes in (after a rousing “This Old House” opener), leaving folks uncertain what would come next. Astley even suggested early on that he really isn’t much of a dancer, and that he probably wouldn’t move around much:
“I just follow this white line back and forth,” he said, pointing to a strip of tape on the stage floor.
But that was just Rick being witty. Despite his self-deprecatory humor, the black-clad 52-year old was in perpetual motion throughout the show, shuffling his feet, gesticulating to fans, and pointing / thumb-upping at his band members. Astley also joked about wanting to get lost on the way to the stage, a la Spinal Tap, this being Cleveland and all.
Fact is, Astley (whose thickly-accented speaking voice is huskier than his songs let on) still possesses much of the same heartthrob appeal that won him an audience back in the ‘80s. He jokingly apologized to males in the crowd who were dragged out by their wives or girlfriends, and flat-out warned anyone “who needs to catch a bus home” that his biggest hit—the song most came out to hear—was being saved for show’s end.
2. He's never gonna run around and desert you.
But getting there was loads of fun. Backed by a full rock outfit (guitar, bass, drums, keys) and two lovely backup singers (Lauren and Stephanie), Rick had the house hopping on “Together Forever,” “Don’t Say Goodbye,” and “It Would Take a Strong Man.” The keyboard man effectively recreated all the synth, strings, and brass sounds heard on record, while the rhythm section conspired to construct quick, sturdy beats that practically dared you not to dance. Even Astley’s guitarist got in on the action, stepping forward at a couple points to rock on his Nash six-string.
3. He's never gonna make you cry.
Astley’s ensemble tap-danced between genres, too, mixing the percolating pop sounds (“She Wants to Dance With Me”) with hard rock, sultry soul (“Hold Me in Your Arms”), and impassioned gospel (“Pray With Me,” “Cry for Help”). Rick dedicated “Angels on My Side” to his musical comrades-in-arms, and whipped females in the crowd into a frenzy with a startlingly good run through Ed Sheeran hit “Shape of You.”
Even more shocking was the vs. girl “sing-song,” where the men in the audience nearly out-sang their dates.
Astley reported that his daughter busted his chops when he tried mashing Rihanna’s “We Found Love” with his own “Take Me to Your Heart.” But mischievous Rick noted that his daughter wasn’t present on this occasion, so—smiling mischievously—he cued the band for the bouncy number.
Astley strummed an electric guitar for one or two songs (and did a shot of Jaegermeister), but the night’s real “wow” moment arrived when he slid behind the drums for a cover of AC/DC classic “Highway to Hell.” Rick explained that he started out as drummer in a covers group as a teen before becoming a pop singer.
4. He's never gonna say goodbye.
Finally, in a show-capping sessions that had a majority in attendance breaking out their cellphone cameras, Astley and company delivered “Never Gonna Give You Up”—during which Rick introduced the musicians and did a bit of scatting.
And yes, he graced Cleveland with some authentic rick-rolls when the jam came to a boil. It was an impressive climax to an already-memorable show.
5. He's never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.
Here’s hoping Astley follows 50 with another album or two. If last night was any indicator (and it was) Rick’s still got plenty of petrol in his tank…and an audience eager for more music. Kudos to him for coming out of retirement and eschewing expectations with a dazzling, diverse, and highly dance-able concert.