Gig review: Rick Astley at First Direct Arena, Leeds

'Leeds, can you feel it?' bellows Rick Astley to the First Direct Arena, prowling and yowling with all the gusto of a James Brown impersonator.

Rick Astley
Rick Astley

They certainly can; barely five minutes in and the 52-year-old already has the whole crowd on their feet for This Old House without breaking a sweat. Two hours later, they’re all still standing for Never Gonna Give You Up, middle-aged women and teenagers bopping in unison as snippets of Barry Manilow and Queen creep into its elongated, 10-minute-plus grandstand finale, still giddily effervescent even as it threatens to collapse under its own weight.

Three years ago, Astley’s status in popular culture seemed to be eternally entombed as a nostalgic purveyor of Stock Aitken Waterman cheese for the parents and dated meme kingpin for the kids. 2016’s 50 gave him an unexpected revitalisation, catapulting him back to the top of the charts and onto a sell-out theatre tour that spawned live collaborations with Foo Fighters and Kylie Minogue along the way.

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Now he’s a bona-fide arena act in his own right, filling these large venues across the country. Even Hollywood doesn’t come up with feelgood encores quite like this any more.

Production values may be bigger and blingier but Astley remains grounded by his Northern warmth, deservedly revelling in the sheer marvel of this late-career upturn. Throughout, he looks to balance the more serious aspirations of his newer material alongside his unashamed embrace of SAW corny-ness, and it is his earnestly deprecating geniality that goes some way to achieving that.

Fifties neo-soul blend has given way to more liberally anthemic chart influences on latest record Beautiful Life; Try and Shivers deliver straight-up lighters-in-the-air alt-rock balladry while Last Night on Earth cribs a hook from the Gary Barlow playbook with nary a batted eyelash.

But the Newton-le-Willows singer refuses to stand on ceremony elsewhere. Soft-focus smoothie Hold Me In Your Arms, dedicated to those “who don’t want to be here” devolves into a Butlins-esque sing-off, Astley channelling the spirit of Ted Bovis throughout. A fluffed intro to Whenever You Need Somebody has him doubled over in gales of laughter; a breakdown into Daft Punk vocoder territory during She Wants to Dance With Me earns pantomime laughter.

A hot take on AC/DC’s Highway to Hell with the singer on drums is just the proverbial icing on this indulgent cake-slice of a show; an irresistibly fun comeback that keeps on giving.