The last time a U.S. venue showcased the name Rick Astley on their marquis, the year was 1989. Batman was Michael Keaton, people were trying to “Do the Right Thing” and Astley was nominated for a Grammy as Best New Artist alongside Tracy Chapman, Vanessa Williams and Take 6. Twenty-eight years later, Astley has returned with a new album, 50, and a slick U.S. tour which landed at Webster Hall this past Friday night.
As the multi-generational crowd filed into Webster Hall, people were snapping photos of the marquis outside with the bold black letters alerting New Yorkers that Astley was still alive and kicking. Comments ranging from, “I hear he still looks pretty good,” to “Do you think he’s going to sing all new stuff or do his ones from the 80’s?” were murmured by the crowd as they filed into the main hall upstairs. It was an evening filled with anticipation and nostalgia as no one quite knew what was to be expected from the artist who had essentially retired from the music scene in 1993.
The opening act, Harrison Kipner, was the perfect warm-up for the Astley fans. His tender voice, his comical in-between song banter, helped the crowd ease into a light-hearted mood that primed them for the one-two punch of Astley and his band. A virtual unknown, Kipner is a YouTube musician who had been invited to tour with Astley and could not compliment the veteran performer enough. “Rick is the nicest guy,” he told the audience. “He always makes sure everyone has everything they need. I am so lucky that I get to open up for a guy like that.”
The lights dimmed and the chords of the pseudo 80’s synth began to float across the stage. The audience immediately began to cheer and applaud as they knew the man they came to see was somewhere in the shadows. As if a lightning bolt had been sent through the sound system, Astley’s baritone voice began to croon and the hall suddenly seemed filled with palpable electricity. When the 51 year-old singer bounded out to greet the crowd, it was slightly surreal. It was as if almost no time had passed. Most artists like Astley, who break into the business at a young age, are type-cast as a heart-throb or a teen idol of sorts, their dreamy looks overshadowing their musical talent. As the ravages of time blur the edges and transform former dreamboats into tugboats, 80’s artists in particular tend to rely on their fans remembering what they used to be and attending their shows out of nostalgic sympathy. But this was not the case with Astley. It was almost refreshing that the fantasy of reliving old glory days was not being shattered by the version of an artist that if you squinted, almost looked like the real thing. Father Time has been kind to Astley and the crowd showed their appreciation immediately by cheering even louder when the singer stormed the stage.
Rick Astley’s career did not reach the same heights as his contemporaries in the 80s. He did not become a household name like Michael Jackson, George Michael, or Sting but he very well could have been with the right promoter, the right label and the stars aligning in just the right way. The show at Webster Hall last Friday night erased any doubts that not only is Astley’s talent undeniable, he is one of those performers who truly knows how to entertain. Perhaps it is because he had to prove himself during an era of music history that was filled with mega-stars and he has learned that good looks and a good voice are not enough to keep the audience coming back. The show was woven into such a delightful tapestry of former hits and new songs, as well as some strategically placed cover songs, that it was almost unbelievable that he had not played the U.S. for almost 30 years.
The set list covered the big ones, “Together Forever,” as well as “She Wants to Dance with Me,” plus a revamped version of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” which Astley joked with the audience he had been dying to change since his former producers made him use “these stupid bells” the first time around. “Tonight we are going to sing it with some balls,” he told his fans before launching into a soulful groove that was as entertaining as it was expertly performed. But the more surprising moments were ones that showcased not only Astley’s love for all types of music but also his accompanying band’s musical prowess. They lit the venue on fire with their version of Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” just as they ably introduced the audience to Astley’s newer songs, “Keep Singing” and “Angels on My Side.” For the ultimate “huh?” moment of the night, Astley moved to the drum set and showed off his skills playing what he remarked as one of his all-time favorite songs. The curve ball was whipped at the audience as the band broke into AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” The crowd was in full pandemonium. It was tremendous.
There were so many quotable moments of the show that it seems almost unreal that it lasted a little more than 75 minutes and had only one short encore that culminated with the biggest song of the night, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” A rabid fan released yellow smiley-faced balloons into the crowd that floated on-stage and it was apparent that Astley and his band were having as much fun as the crowd as they soccer head-kicked the yellow orbs and used their instruments to bat the rubber globes back into the audience without missing a note.
It was a glorious night. Rick Astley was personable, charming, and his voice is still as strong as ever. His boyish grin after every song seemed to clearly say that he was having the time of his life. There was an endearing moment that won-over even the audience members who had been dragged there by a super fan when Astley took the time to thank everyone who works at Webster Hall as well as his road crew who, according to Astley, are “the first ones off the bus and the last ones on.” A nearby stagehand was overheard saying, “That’s cool, man,” and several others nodded their appreciation for the recognition in Astley’s direction. A magnanimous professional, he even took the time during a song at the end of the show to flash the audience a sign promoting his opening act, Harrison Kipner, and made sure to stand still enough for everyone to snap a photo with their phones.
Well-worth the ticket price, those who missed the show should hope that Astley’s promise to come back to New York City in the near future holds true. Even if you do not like his music, you should give Rick Astley a shot. His live show is an artful display of musical prowess peppered with witty conversation and wonderfully melodious songs. It is such an enjoyable evening that it should not be missed if the chance presents itself again. This city needs some goodness, some light-hearted fun and some true-blue entertainment on its stages, especially since what’s happening out on the sidewalks is so disheartening as of late. And we should be thankful that Rick Astley is never gonna give us up because we need more people like him in the world.
Article: Hannah Soule