BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
Though he’ll always be connected to a certain ‘80s dance floor smoothie that in recent years turned him into an Internet punchline (or hero, when you consider how well it’s worked out), Rick Astley is and always has been much more than “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
In his 1987-1993 prime, Astley hit the U.S. Top 40 seven times with blue-eyed soul songs far better than the one synonymous with his career.
On Tuesday night, Astley returned to Center Stage – the scene of his first-ever Atlanta concert last year – to wrap his month-long U.S. tour with a lot of reminiscing, but also some noteworthy nods to the present.
Opening his set with “This Old House,” a song from 2016’s “50” album, his first studio effort in a decade and a surprising smash in his native England, Astley immediately released that warm, unmistakable voice on a song that emphasizes fortitude.
But, knowing that the animated crowd that mostly filled Center Stage was eager for an ‘80s transport, he quickly shifted to the gliding rhythm of “Together Forever” and the underappreciated “It Would Take a Strong Strong Man.”
In addition to his instantly comforting voice, Astley is a teddy bear of a man. At 52, his appearance is astonishingly similar to his glory years (he even joked about visiting his website to find out the secrets to a perfect swoop of hair), the crinkles around his eyes only adding to his unpretentious good looks.
Backed by his longtime group of four musicians, as well as two excellent female backup singers, Astley rapidly paced the stage - unadorned aside from the band’s setup – while flipping his microphone and chatting amiably in between songs.
A couple of songs into the show, he displayed his natural self-deprecation when he called out a young man in the crowd dressed in his finest ‘80s-era mimic-wear of blazer and Ray-Bans. Astley also talked a bit about his early career playing in bands and his affection for cover songs before offering “the one we’ve been murdering lately” – a faithful, hip-swiveling version of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.”
As it was the last night of the tour, Astley and his bandmates downed a shot (well, an audience member slugged Astley’s, who instead sipped his probably-not-tea from a white mug) before heading into his 1989 overseas hit, “Hold Me In Your Arms” and one of the set’s highlights, “Cry for Help.”
Noting that he wanted to feature his backup singers more prominently, Astley first offered his own flawless vocal on the plaintive ballad, capturing its helpless appeal with visceral emotion before his dynamic duo belted its full-fledged gospel chorus.
In a recent interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution , Astley talked a bit about the new album he’s currently finishing. It’s unlikely that casual listeners – especially in the U.S. – will ever embrace new Astley material as fervently as his hits, and he knows this.
But give the guy credit for remaining visible and, to a certain audience, relevant, on the strength of some super-solid songs.