Rick Astley Gives Up Avoiding America, Rolls Back Into L.A. for Comeback Gig

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Rick Astley performs on July 23, 2016.

At the Troubadour, looking just slightly less boyish than we remember, the '80s pop sensation mixed old songs with new and found some sort of rick-rolling equivalent in an unlikely AC/DC cover.

Not to agree with Nick Lowe that all men are liars, but Rick Astley did, in fact, give us up. He also let America down, ran around, deserted us, and said goodbye, having done his last U.S. show in the States back in 1989, just a few short months after he was nominated for (and lost) the Grammy for best new artist. He quit music altogether by the early ‘90s, taking one of the most severe early retirement plans in pop history.

Rick Astley Scores First U.K. No. 1 Album in 29 Years

There is no longer a Universal Amphitheatre to come back to to (the site of his final American gig 27 years ago), so Astley settled for the Troubadour for his return to L.A. Thursday, just one night after a similar club gig across the country in New York. He never did address the elephant in the packed room, which would be exactly what he thinks of rick-rolling. But the imperishable “Never Gonna Give You Up” did get dutifully polished off, capping a set devoted largely to the obviously more deeply felt material from his comeback album, 50, which just debuted at No. 1 in the UK, proving that Brits have a strong “I can’t quit you” instinct even if he didn’t always hold up his end of the lyrical bargain.

Normally, if a pop star went MIA for more than a quarter-century, we’d suspect personal problems afoot: A drug problem? Errant hair plugs? An ungovernable pot belly? But Rick rolled into town in such tip-top shape that it was if he’d never stopped performing. His ease on stage belied the fact that he has been busy on the European circuit since the mid-2000s, even venturing as close to these shores as the Philippines, while waiting — he more or less explained early in the set — till he had an album of original material he was particularly proud of to broach American again. And who knows, maybe, just maybe, he wanted to wait out the decade or so it took a particular Internet meme to run its course.

What’s different? Our man is less overtly ginger than in the ‘80s, and there’s far less of an overall pouf, but he still has that Tintin thing going at the forefront of his robust hairline — a trademark is a trademark. While he turned in a flawless vocal performance, perhaps the most pronounced change was in the tone of his voice: It got less deep, so that now he sounds like a more typical Brit-soul singer, instead of coming off like a Michael McDonald who had some baritone cross-breeding in his family background. This change is not a bad thing, if your initial instinct in 1987 or ’88 was that there was something a little freakish about his combination of boyishness and mannishness. Astley’s face has aged well at 50, and his voice has actually de-aged in some way. He grew into himself, in other words, in the half-a-lifetime we weren’t looking.

One other change: “You may have noticed I don’t dance anymore,” he declared early on. “It’s not for lack of desire… But if I broke into one of those 1980s shuffles, anything could happen.” He did eventually break into a slow dance with his background singer, but the audience was spared or denied both the vintage hand jive and the weird raincoat that went with it.

His 50 album gets its American release Oct. 7, four months after bowing overseas, and what Troubadour fans learned if they hadn’t already had their British friends send over a copy is that it’s a mature, creditable, contemporary-sounding effort that doesn’t suffer too much for skimping on any Stock-Aitken-Waterman sense of campy dance fun. Most of the tracks wouldn’t sound out of place on, say, an Adele album, although instead of her miserable lyrics, Astley fills almost every song with inspirational, secular-gospel messages. Titles like “Pray With Me,” “Angels On My Side,” and “God Says” even led Astley to assure the crowd at one point that he wasn’t conventionally religious, and the angels of which he spoke were just keeping-his-back friends like his ace band.

He doubled down on the fact that he hasn’t undergone any religious conversion in his absence when he led the crowd in a playfully profane chant. It came while he was introducing “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” a Temptations smash he covered in his late ‘80s salad days, and did a terrible job with, at least arrangement-wise, he felt. “Because it was the ‘80s, we did it with a lot of synthesized things,” Astley said, singling out the chimey “bell” sound that his keyboard player demonstrated for context. “I love the ‘80s, but sometimes you’ve gotta say, f--- the bells. F--- the bells…”

Other covers included the post-bells standard “Uptown Funk” — in the lively but unnecessary category — and, more interestingly, a version of Rihanna’s “We Found Love” spliced into his 1988 “Take Me to Your Heart.” The seeming climax of the show was “Never Gonna Give You Up,” a song he announced he had to do at every show, and which had been very, very good to him (in other words, he hates it), and which turns out to be less galvanizing live than it was on record, just as it was less galvanizing on record than it is in surprise 10-second web snippets.

But Astley couldn’t end on a song he couldn’t put his full heart into, and so he encored by sitting down at the drums — his original instrument, when he was starting out in punk bands, he claimed — and asking, “Do you wanna rock?… Hearing me say that probably sounds a bit weird. But in an alternate universe, this is what might have been.” Astley proceeded to sing and play an incongruous and suitably rousing version of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” like a man who would never give the devil up. Give a guy credit for knowing how to Angus-roll his own show.

Setlist:

This Old House

Together Forever

It Would Take a Strong Strong Man

When I Fall in Love

Keep Singing

She Wants to Dance With Me

Hold Me in Your Arms

Uptown Funk

Pieces

Cry for Help

Angels on My Side

God Says

Take Me to Your Heart/We Found Love

Pray With Me

Whenever You Need Somebody

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg

Never Gonna Give You Up

Highway to Hell