Live Review: a-ha, Rick Astley

24 February 2020 | 4:35 pm | Cyclone Wehner

"A-ha always had more to offer [than 'Take On Me']."

More a-ha More a-ha

The Norwegian band a-ha broke out in the '80s with their single Take On Me, accompanied by a trailblazing animation/live-action video that latterly reached a billion views on YouTube in an age of ephemerality. Now, vocalist Morten Harket, keyboardist Mags Furuholmen, and guitarist/chief songwriter Paul Waaktaar-Savoy have finally returned to Australia for the first time since 1986, when they were concert newbies. The trio have long transcended teen idol status, being seen as innovators. Indeed, as a Euro phenom, a-ha arguably initiated the Scandinavian electro-pop movement.

Supporting a-ha at this sold-out Melbourne show is their dapper – and chatty – "special guest" Rick Astley, today infamous as the inspiration for the Rickrolling meme with his enduring 1987 dance-pop smash Never Gonna Give You Up. Yet the Brit is no novelty act, a 2000s comeback necessitating a re-evaluation of his musical range. And, bolstered by a tight band complete with dual star female backing singers, he proves to be a consummate blue-eyed soulster. The vibe of his set? Las Vegas casino.

Astley starts with Together Forever, a US chart-topper from his '80s Stock Aitken Waterman era. Next, he boldly performs a new song: the groovy Beautiful Life, off 2018's album of the same title (which cracked the UK Top 10). He could be channelling Jamiroquai. Astley digs hip mash-ups – combining She Wants To Dance With Me and Lizzo's Juice, and Take Me To Your Heart with Rihanna's We Found Love. It's brilliant. He also covers INXS' New Sensation, joking that, compared to the late Michael Hutchence, he "never was that cool." Though Astley's show is largely upbeat, his '90s R&B ballad Cry For Help is popular – punters waving illuminated phones in the air. Inevitably, Astley wraps with Never Gonna Give You Up. He is revelatory.

A-ha are the kind of new wave band that might be expected to resist nostalgia, like The Church. Besides, they still release albums – and are experimenters. But, this tour, they're performing their 1985 debut album, Hunting High And Low, in full for its 35th anniversary. In fact, with the exception of their preferred demo version of the album track I Dream Myself Alive, an eccentric Berlin cabaret tune, they're faithful to the originals. Harket, fronting an extended live ensemble, engages with the audience, albeit minimally – the focus on the music.

The challenge for a-ha in reproducing Hunting High And Low sequentially is that the album's intro is Take On Me, a synth-pop classic even adored by Kanye West. But, while the group's rendition is sublime with Harket's sonorous falsetto, a-ha always had more to offer. Among their set's many highlights is the cult Hunting High And Low title-track – sumptuous Scandinavian loungecore with acoustic guitar. Ironically, the only thing that mars it is the fans' offkey singalong. The synth-led Living A Boy's Adventure Tale assumes a certain wistfulness in 2020. However, The Sun Always Shines On TV, surely greater than Take On Me, epitomises a-ha's euphoric melancholy. Live, it's rockier, with Waaktaar-Savoy's guitar prominent – testing synth purists. In contrast, Love Is Reason is more restrained than on record, a-ha dispensing with the hi-NRG disco beats. The outfit conclude the first arc of their show with the LP's baroque finale, Here I Stand And Face The Rain – Harket again in melodramatic mode.

A-ha then revisit other "favourites" from across their back catalogue, beginning with 1990's delicately executed, if out-of-time, remake of The Everly Brothers' '60s Crying In The Rain. The band express a tougher, rockier side with the obscure Sycamore Leaves – very U2 – from the same album, East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon. The evening's most recent song of theirs is 2005's UK hit Analogue (All I Want), co-produced by Max Martin and broaching Pearl Jam grunge. The crowd welcome it. Predictably, a-ha exit with their menacing James Bond movie theme, The Living Daylights – the ultimate encore flex.

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