The House of Blues was packed last night for the Rick Astley concert, and there was a buzz in the air before the pop singer’s show even started. We even overheard one fan talk about seeing Astley again in Cincinnati later this week.
And then he strolled onto the stage, the man, the meme, the internet legend…Rick Astley. Trading in his signature crimson pompadour for a darker, more distinguished coif, Astley stood beneath a disco ball amidst smooth, slightly calypso beats. The disco ball began to spin as he performed his classic hit “Together Forever.” Astley came off like a lounge lizard aboard the cruise ship to nostalgia island. You could almost feel the waves beneath your feet as the ship left the dock and you were on your way to sensory enlightenment.
In ways, Astley looks even better now than he did back in the ’80s. He’s ditched the trench coat and instead wears all black with sneakers, making him appear like a hip Reverend, the kind that might let you smoke cigarettes behind the church. His newer songs have a distinctly spiritual tone, but Astley isn’t forcing any sort of specific religion onto his fans. He said he knows it sounds cheesy, but his faith is in human beings. He delivered tracks like “Keep Singing” and “Angels on My Side” with heartfelt passion, lifting up the secular congregation. The two female back-up singers had powerhouse voices, and Astley brought them center stage, so they could truly showcase their talent on “Cry for Help.”
Throughout the night, Astley smiled, winked and jovially pointed. With his thick British accent, he joked, “You may have noticed I’ve done literally no dancing whatsoever. There is not an insurance company that would insure me to dance at 52.” He playfully mocked a few guys in the audience by folding his arms and pretending to nod off, imagining them thinking, “I wish this was fucking Slipknot.” He even joked he was about to perform a Slipknot song but instead went into “Hold Me in Your Arms.” A highlight of the evening was Astley’s cover of kindred ginger spirit Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.” Perhaps to put a bit of an edge on his holiness vibe, Astley did a shot of Jager on stage with the members of his band.
Astley was comfortable telling anecdotes to the crowd. He talked about being an embarrassing father to a 26-year-old daughter who saw him perform a mashup of his song with Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” After she had seen him perform it, she told him never to do it again. But then he said since his daughter wasn't at the show, he could do as he pleased and then performed the Rihanna hit mixed with his track “Take Me to Your Heart.” He spoke of how he began drumming at age 14, getting behind the drum set while singing to a cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
Astley is a serious vocalist who does not take himself too seriously. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor and joked that if people weren’t aware that he made an album two years ago it would be a good time to use the bathroom. Early on in the night, he did a bar of “Never Gonna Give You Up” and said, “Ok, the concert is over.” More than once he acknowledged that people were probably only there for “Never Gonna Give You Up” but not in an angry way, more like he was saying it before someone else could say it to him. Incredibly self-aware, Astley knows he is probably best known as a novelty act, a simple curiosity. But the joke was on everyone else when he proved himself to be so much more. Astley is a humble and affable gent, and while some may have scurried in the corners after becoming the butt of an infamous internet gag like Rick-rolling, Astley has used that global spotlight to his advantage.
Astley is both light and dark, a pale-skinned sweetheart with jet black hair, one-minute singing about praying and the next taking everyone on a highway to hell. He is the embodiment of contradiction itself, demurely sipping out of a coffee cup, then doing shots on stage with his bandmates. He has had unimaginable success coupled with being pigeonholed as a punchline. He has felt the extremes, the embrace of God and the scorch of the devil, and last night he shared that journey with us all.
He ended the night by taking us back to 1987 with an extended version of “Never Gonna Give You Up,” pausing in the middle to thank each bandmate, doing an adorable shoulder brush-off dance with his back-up singers as the bassist performed a solo, and shouted out, “Cleveland I’m feeling fucking marvelous!” Then, Astley gently lead the ship back into the dock, concluding the Sunday night dream cruise through heaven and hell.