I'll never forget the first time I was Rickroll'd. Like many kids who grew up with the Internet, I discovered Rick Astley
back in 2008 by clicking on a YouTube video that seemingly had nothing to do with him. I was so excited to see the new trailer for Spiderman 4
, and then all of a sudden, this boyish-faced man in clothes way too big for him was awkwardly dancing on my screen, along with a couple blonde models and a dancing bartender for some reason. I had only heard rumors of this trend, and I had thought I was smart enough to avoid it, but as I realized Spiderman was nowhere to be found in this video, I accepted my fate. I had been Rickroll'd. It was of course a little bit humiliating to be pranked by the Millennial equivalent of "the oldest joke in the book," but as I let the song play, I started bobbing my head to the beat, and I thought, This...is pretty good, actually
. And just like that, I had found my all-time favorite guilty pleasure.
So when I found out that Astley would be returning to the US for the first time since 1989 for two shows, one at the Box in New York and the other at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, I had an internal fangirl panic attack. Apparently, a lot of people were even more excited than I was, because when I arrived to the Box about an hour before doors opened, the line was already invading the sidewalk. The good amount of people were wearing t-shirts from Astley's '89 US tour, and I even saw one woman with a t-shirt that said "Rick's Angels" written in bold cursive across her chest. People were anxious for the show to get moving, with one woman shouting, "Let's get this party started! I've only been waiting 30 years!" Clearly, I was the youngest person there; the sharpie X's on the backs of my hands were practically screaming, "He's from a different time! He's not one of us!" and I heard plenty of chuckles and parent-like "awwwwws" as I walked through the crowd. Generation gap aside, I wasnt going to enjoy Rick any less just because I literally didn't exist in the 1980s.
The Box was definitely an interesting choice of venue, and a place I never imagined seeing Rick Astley perform at. With burlesque shows apparently happening pretty regularly, including right after Astley, the Box definitely had a kind of Gatsby-esque, old-timey speakeasy vibe going on. The walls were covered with rococo wallpaper and hand-painted posters of can-can dancers and circuses, and the private booths lining the walls sported old-fashioned, red satin cushions. Since the space was pretty small and narrow, and because the balcony area was reserved for VIPs, the crowd became, for lack of a better phrase, boxed in pretty quickly. While it was somewhat cramped, the small space also meant you were pretty close to the stage without really trying, so that was a plus.
After the anticipation reached its full capacity, the lights dimmed, and the band, dressed in black-tie attire, came onstage and began playing. But where was Rick? People looked to the stairs behind the stage for Astley to come out, but out of nowhere, his silky smooth voice came blaring out of the speakers, and he emerged from the audience, mic in hand and in all black, walked onstage, and transitioned into a new song, "This Old House." Needless to say, the crowd went absolutely nuts. It was almost like Astley's presence turned back the clock three decades, because almost all the full-grown adults in the audience were screaming like high-pitched teenage girls. Astley's new record, 50
, is based on the artist reflecting on reaching that age this year, but even at 50, he still has that boyish smile that made everyone fall in love with him all those years ago. He's always been charming and charismatic in his own quirky way, and still is, but at least now his awkward dad-dancing suits him because he is
The benefit of experience shown through in Astley's stage presence as well, as he knew how the work the crowd pretty damn well. I watched the row of women in front of me melt to the floor every time Rick pointed or winked at them, and there was even one point where he turned around, his back facing the crowd, and said, "Go on, drink me in ladies," and the ladies enthusiastically obliged. This was far from the only onstage antic, as in between songs, Astley had plenty of jokes to go around, and he was actually really funny. When Astley was talking about recording the new album in his home studio, the audience cheered a little bit, and he cheekily replied, "Yeah you should cheer, you paid for my studio after all...and my boat...and I'm not even going to go into the swimming pool!" At another point, he apologized for not dancing as much as he used to because he is "not insured," facetiously panting afterwards, "I'm too old for this shit." While he hasn't been in the US for a long time, he's been playing in plenty of other parts of the world, so he seemed pretty unfazed and comfortable onstage despite the added pressure. The band was also really tight and nailed every song they played, including a particularly impressive showing by Astley's backup singer, Dawn Joseph.
The music was a surprisingly diverse mix of 80s hits, new music, and even a couple of covers. While 50
has been released in the UK, and debuted at number one in fact, the album has yet to be released in the States, so Astley and his band had the added challenge of introducing the audience to new music. The material off his new record is a lot more blues and gospel influenced than his earlier work, and even featured Astley on guitar for a couple tracks. "Keep Singing" is a heavy soul-infused track that proves Astley's mature voice works well outside the realm of 80s dance-pop, and "Angels On My Side" is and upbeat gospel track that easily got people clapping along. Both of these songs are singles that have been released already, so a decent amount of people were familiar with them, but the band also took time to introduce some other songs from 50
, like the opener "This Old House" and, as Astley himself put it, the first song he wrote "not about love or a girl," "Pieces."
The covers were definitely the most unexpected part of the show, and while Astley did sing his cover of Nat King Cole's "When I Fall In Love," which he released as a single in 1987, he also performed "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, a mashup of his song "Take Me To Your Heart" with "We Found Love" by Rihanna, and even a spontaneous jam of "Highway to Hell" by ACDC, which Astley sang while playing drums. I was personally excited to hear Astley try out some current hits, but going by the crowd reactions, a few folks seemed slightly more excited when he stuck to his own music. Granted, Astley was having plenty of fun anyway, and the covers were a pretty cool surprise in my opinion.
Of course, plenty of the setlist was dedicated to Astley's pop-tastic 80s dance hits, and these songs definitely spurred the greatest reaction from the audience. "Together Forever," one of Astley's most well known hits, brought smiles to everyone in the room, from the band to the audience. "She Wants to Dance With Me" got everyone moving despite the limited elbowroom, and "Hold Me In Your Arms" was dedicated "to the fellas in the audience" as the perfect song to make a move on their special lady. "Cry For Help" was a slow ballad that really let Dawn Joseph show off her talents, as she traded vocals with Astley and even took a chorus solo at the end. Since the audience is more familiar with this part of Astley's career, it makes the most sense that people loved these songs the most. Music is a great way to make people feel young again, and last night was definitely a good example of that idea.
Finally, last but not least, Astley closed the show with that
song. The song that is Astley's biggest hit, the song that was reintroduced to a whole new generation of kids in the most unexpected way possible, and probably the one song you were waiting for me to talk about. Yes, like Olympic athletes taking a victory lap, Astley and his band launched into the theme song of the Internet, "Never Gonna Give You Up." The audience, myself included, couldn't have been happier. Words cannot express how happy I was to hear that song live for the first time. Everyone was singing along, Astley briefly mimicked his dance moves from the video, and even bubbles were released from the ceiling to complete the wonderful dream-come-true of being Rickroll'd in real life. As shown from the entire show, Astley sounds just as good now as he did back then, and the band absolutely nailed the quintessential 80s pop sound. In all honesty, I would've been happy no matter what Astley played as long as he played "Never Gonna Give You Up," but the fact that the show was good overall is a huge plus. Astley let the band jam over "NGGYU" while he introduced each of the members, thanked everyone for coming and supporting him since the beginning, and said, to everyones delight, "We will definitely be back."
So, that's one artist off my bucket list. After being away from the States for so long, Rick Astley proved that he hasn't missed a beat, both in his vocals and his showmanship. While the strongest reaction came from the old hits, the new material was good in its own right and the covers were a fun addition to the setlist. If you missed last night's show and can't make it to LA, don't worry, because Astley and his band said they will be back for more, and as we all know: Rick Astley will never give you up. He will never let you down. He will never run around and desert you. He'll never make you cry, never say goodbye. He'll never tell a lie, and hurt you.