There are some people who think a-ha and Rick Astley are one-hit-wonders. Those misguided folk not only missed out on some brilliant pop tunes, they presumably weren’t at a-ha and Rick Astley’s Melbourne joint shows last weekend.
Indeed, with Astley ending his set with Never Gonna Give You Up and a-ha starting theirs with Take On Me, anyone who came for ‘the hits’ would have got their fix in a very short window.
The Norwegian trio and the British pop star are two very different performers, but there’s a surprising amount of overlap that makes this an unexpectedly suitable double bill.
Magne Furuholmen of a-ha photo by Serge Thomann
Both started their lives being underestimated due to being viewed as mere pop acts, both walking away from their careers at points, and returning for belated credibility.
Several decades on, both acts are happy to embrace their past as the ticket to keep them travelling around the world, but don’t trade purely on nostalgia.
Astley, who broke a long drought to visit Australia a few times over the past decade, is now here with his own band and it makes all the difference.
Rick Astley at A Day On The Green 2020 photo by Serge Thomann
Revitalised after two well-received self-penned hit UK albums (including the No.1, 50), tellingly new songs like Beautiful Life, Keep Singing and Dance can sit comfortably with his trademark hits.
Astley’s new material is channelling modern references like Rag’n’ Bone Man and Snow Patrol, and he even updates his 80s hits – She Wants To Dance With Me is merged with Lizzo’s Juice – and he becomes Chic Astley as Whenever You Need Somebody morphs into Good Times.
Before introducing “what the kids call a ‘mash up'” of Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s We Found Love with his own Take Me To Your Heart, he says it’s the moment his 28-year-old daughter uses as a toilet break when she comes to his concerts.
While his British shows usually see Astley get behind the drumkit to blast out AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (while still singing), he’s updated his Australian shout out for this tour, belting out a seriously impressive take on INXS’s New Sensation, complete with backing vocalists in Kick t-shirts.
Rick Astley and his INXS backing singers at A Day On The Green 2020 photo by Serge Thomann
At the start of the gig Astley checks if any of the audience had mistakenly wandered into Madge Caught instead of Rod Laver Arena, where Tool were playing next door.
“Did you come to see Tool? ‘Oh they’ve changed, they’ve got quiffs and 80s beats’.”
Ironically, after his set, Tool fans claim they spotted rock lover Astley at Rod Laver Arena watching the US band’s show. He’s got a whole Australian and New Zealand tour to catch a-ha’s set after all.
Meanwhile this is a-ha’s Hunting High and Low tour. Which means in a true baller move they come on stage to Take On Me, usually their encore.
Morten Harket of a-ha photo by Serge Thomann
That instantly separates the casual fans from the people who foolishly file them under Cutting Crew or Nena.
Their 1985 debut was clearly beloved – and like all 80s albums, heavily weighted.
Performed in order, that means side one delivers singles Take On Me, Train of Thought and title track Hunting High and Low as the night’s first three performances.
Frontman Morten Harket’s show-stopping, 5-octave voice remains intact – something many 60-something singers cannot claim – and arguably their finest 80s single The Sun Always Shines on TV, is seriously epic.
There’s a Pavlov’s Dog feel to album-in-full concerts – everyone knows what’s coming next – and the band not only keep to the arrangements of the original album, but deep dive further with the demo version of Dream Myself Alive.
“Have you listened to this album for the first time in 35 years recently?” keyboardist Magne Furuholmen asked at one point. “Morten has…”
“It became necessary,” Harket added.
“I can’t hear him,” Furuholmen said. “That’s one of the perks of the job.”
There’s a strange chemistry between the trio – more business associates than friends it seems – but it’s working.
After the album ends, the lottery begins – the handful of songs they’re choosing to play in the second set on this tour.
This is their first Australian tour since 1986 – a tour with a setlist remarkably similar to this 2020 setlist. If I remember correctly though, the screams may have been slightly louder back then.
Sadly there’s nothing from their career-high album from 2000, Minor Earth Major Sky, and indeed the only track from this century is the 2005 Max Martin co-write Analogue (All I Want).
Instead, they focus on the early period of their career – their cover of Crying in the Rain, skipping hit Cry Wolf for album tracks from that record – The Swing of Things and title track Scoundrel Days as well as the hit I’ve Been Losing You (partially written in Sydney on that first tour) and ballad Stay On These Roads.
Their Bond theme The Living Daylights is promoted to concert closer and turned into an audience singalong.
Paul Waaktaar-Savoy of a-ha photo by Serge Thomann
Given they’ve seen they can fill an arena in Australia in 2020, if they can keep the band together, could we see another a-ha tour playing material from their entire career?
Rick Astley setlist
Together Forever (from Whenever You Need Somebody, 1987)
Beautiful Life (from Beautiful Life, 2018)
She Wants To Dance With Me / Juice (from Hold Me In your Arms, 1988 / Lizzo cover, 2019)
Keep Singing (from 50, 2016)
Whenever You Need Somebody (from Whenever You Need Somebody, 1987)
Every One Of Us (from The Best Of Me, 2019)
Cry for Help (from Free, 1991)
Angels On My Side (from 50, 2016)
Take Me To Your Heart (from Hold Me In your Arms, 1988)
Dance (from 50, 2016)
Try (from Beautiful Life, 2018)
New Sensation (INXS cover)
Never Gonna Give You Up (from Whenever You Need Somebody, 1987)
Take On Me
Train Of Thought
Hunting High And Low
The Blue Sky
Living A Boy’s Adventure Tale
The Sun Always Shines On TV
And You Tell Me
Love Is Reason
I Dream Myself Alive (demo version)
Here I Stand And Face The Rain
(all from Hunting High And Low, 1985)
Crying In The Rain (from East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon, 1990)
Sycamore Leaves (from East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon, 1990)
The Swing Of Things (from Scoundrel Days, 1986)
Analogue (All I Want) (from Analogue, 2005)
I’ve Been Losing You (from Scoundrel Days, 1986)
Stay On These Roads (from Stay On These Roads, 1988)
Scoundrel Days (from Scoundrel Days, 1986)
The Living Daylights (from Stay On These Roads, 1988)
A-ha and Rick Astley A Day On The Green dates
29 February, Hunter Valley, Bimbadgen
1 March, Mt Cotton, Sirromet Winery
7 March, Auckland Villa Marie Winery
A-ha and Rick Astley indoor dates
26 February, Sydney, ICC Theatre
5 March, Christchurch, Horncastle Arena