CONCERT REVIEW: Rick Astley covers ‘Freebird’ at 9:30 Club in D.C.

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There’s something to be said for an artist who does not allow himself to be pigeonholed. It’s wild to think that someone like Rick Astley (yes, that Rick Astley) would fall into that category, but at his sold-out 9:30 Club show Tuesday night, the English singer proved just how versatile he really is.

Looking like he has been cryogenically preserved since 1989, when he last toured the U.S., Mr. Astley, now 51, covered his own hits, those of others and a few songs no one expected from the man who shot to fame with 1987’s infectious “Never Gonna Give You Up.” (His first record of new material in 11 years, “50,” was released last year, and contains songs with far less sugar and far more soul.)

“As I look around the audience, I see a lot of young faces. You must have been dragged here,” the crooner quipped.

But Mr. Astley is far more than “that guy from the ‘Rick Roll’ video,” as evidenced by his performing the many hits he had in the U.S. beyond “Never Gonna Give You Up.” On tunes “Together Forever,” “She Wants to Dance With Me, “Take Me to Your Heart,” “Cry for Help” and “Whenever You Need Somebody,” Mr. Astley brought forth that voice still as choir-boy clear as when the records first came out decades ago.

Mr. Astley sprinkled many covers into his set, often intermixing them into his own songs. “I like doing covers for a lot of reasons,” he said, “but mostly because it makes me feel like a teenager again.” Among the modern covers were the modern soul sounds of “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, the classic soul sounds of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by The Temptations and the old-school grooves of “When I Fall in Love” by Nat King Cole.

The artist also performed a mashup of “Take Me to Your Heart” with “We Found Love” by Rhianna, which got the whole place doing a unified pogo.

“I know I’m a bit old for a mashup,” Mr. Astley said, “but you just get to an age in your life when you don’t” care anymore, he said.

Mr. Astley and backup singer Dawn Joseph turned the middle of “Cry for Help” into a medley of reggae-infused ‘80s covers: a little bit of Whitney Houston (“Dance with Somebody”), a little bit of Culture Club (“Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”) and a little bit of Human League (“Don’t You Want Me”), before Miss Joseph did some incredible octave gymnastics at the song’s end.

Mr. Astley also paid tribute to District native Marvin Gaye with a medley of “What’s Going On,” “Mercy, Mercy Me” and “Sexual Healing.”

“In every U.S. city so far, we try to pick someone local to cover,” Mr. Astley said before undertaking the trio of Gaye’s tunes. “God help us when we get to Boston. … Aerosmith, God help us. Might do The Cars instead.”

Mr. Astley and the band then segued into a few flawless bars of “My Best Friend’s Girl” from The Cars, which the crowd absolutely ate up.

The most interesting moment of the night was also the least expected. An audience member yelled out “Freebird,” the lengthy Lynyrd Skynyrd epic song. Mr. Astley’s guitarist played a few riffs, which made the bandleader chuckle and say, “We’ll do that as part of the encore.”

True to his word, using an audience member’s phone to recall the lyrics, the band gave a perfect impromptu rendition of the Southern rock staple in the encore, which drove the audience bananas.

By the time Mr. Astley and company closed with “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the 9:30 crowd was dancing like it was a Saturday night.

“If we come again, will you come again?” he asked during in the song’s final chorus, to which the audience responded enthusiastically.

American audiences will never make him cry, say goodbye or desert him, even if it takes him another 27 years to return to our shores.

 

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