After the Rick Astley show at Warehouse Live, at a watering hole across the street, a couple surveyed the latest record they had purchased, 50, recorded by the man they had just witnessed play an exuberant and well-received 90-plus minutes. So what got them into the '80s British superstar?
“The Internet,” replied the female half of the duo, looking not a day over 25-years-old.
“You must be my age,” said her boyfriend, as we recalled Saturdays spent at the local roller rink as kids, when Astley was at the height of his powers.
What did they think of the show?
“It was [expletive] awesome!” they replied in unison.
It’s easy to forget how huge Rick Astley was 30 years ago. The younger generation may have been introduced to the baritone British singer via the Rickroll Internet phenomenon, but for a brief time, Astley was one of, if not the biggest male pop stars in the world. Sporting a baby face that any grandmother could love, sharp threads and perfect hair, Astley was the clean-cut chart topper we could all get behind.
And he had the tunes. Singles “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Together Forever” hit the top of the charts in 1988, the album Whenever You Need Somebody sold over 15 million albums worldwide, and the 50-year-old singer acknowledged as much during one of his many between-song interludes, “My mom says thank you for buying my first album,” he winked, “because it paid for her house.”
Astley’s sound, a product of working with super-producers known simply as Stock Aitken Waterman, perfectly captured the late-'80s High-NRG, Motown-influenced dance sound that many of us now in our 30s and 40s spent countless hours listening to and pining over. Astley sat comfortably among other icons, Madonna, Paula Abdul and Belinda Carlisle, as flagbearers of infectious Top 40 radio. By the turn of the decade, the spotlight on pop music had turned to a darker and heavier sound, leaving Astley without an audience to sing for, and he shifted his priority to being a family man.
A little Robin Thicke
Midway through the show, a companion said of the still dapperly dressed, finely coiffed and fantastically voiced Astley, “He has a little Robin Thicke to him.” The truth was he was the original Robin Thicke with “Never Gonna Give You Up,” serving as the “Blurred Lines” for '80s kids, without any of the troublesome plagiarism controversy.
On Tuesday night, Astley set out to prove that he was much more than a viral video sensation, which he achieved with aplomb. Backed up by a top-notch, workman-like backing band, he opened up with “This Old House” from 50, his first No. 1 UK album in decades. It was quickly apparent that he still had the voice that launched a million posters onto bedroom walls. A voice a little deeper, more mature but still with the impressive range, it carried the night, his band allowing him to take the spotlight front and center.
“I thought you would all be into the ball game,” Astley remarked at the respectably full Warehouse Live, alluding to the congestion brought on by the Super Bowl celebrations across the highway.
Not relying on his past hits served Astley well – he was there to promote a new record, after all. The new songs were an indication of how much the now middle-aged man had grown in his time away and they were plenty entertaining, including the gospel-inflected “Pray With Me,” “Angels On My Side” and “Keep Singing,” in addition to the Robbie Williams-esque “Pieces.”
Astley kept the crowd engaged with covers that highlighted his powerhouse vocals, including The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” the Victor Young classic/Nat King Cole cover “When I Fall In Love,” and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” which he warned the audience his band was about to murder, but didn’t do anything close to it as it was one of the best received tunes of the night. Perhaps the most gonzo moment came when Astley came out for the encore and sat behind the drumkit to bust out AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell,” showcasing his musicality beyond expert mic-slinging.
But let’s be perfectly honest. We were there for the hits and, boy, did Astley deliver. “Together Forever,” the second song in, set the tone for the night that declared he still had the goods, despite being old enough to hold an AARP card. “Whenever You Need Somebody,” the second song into the encore, had the mostly polite crowd grooving like someone had spiked the punch at the 8th grade dance.
Astley cheekily let us know he was in on the joke, telling us before his on- and offline hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” that he couldn’t play it halfway through the set because half the venue would have cleared out. When he did unleash his biggest song, the crowd lapped up every infectious chorus and played into each orchestrated call-and-response, saving the biggest cheers for when Astley let them know it was his first show in Houston (and Texas) ever.
The best thing for those who came out on a school night, he promised he’d be back again.