No one ever said that playing rock music was rocket science, but Brian May has proven that the two aren’t necessarily diametrically opposed. (For those intrepid-minded readers, feel free to dig into his thesis entitled A Survey Of Radial Velocities In The Zodiacal Dust Cloud.) The good news is that he’s not gone all pointy-headed nerd in the process, and still knows how to wield the Red Special on stage in a most impressive manner. Hell, he loves that guitar so much he convinced the rest of the band to fashion a stage in its iconic shape for the new Queen + Adam Lambert tour that hit town last night.
It’s pretty clear that the Freddie Mercury was among the best singers of his or any generation, and he matched that prodigious vocal talent with a flair for style and some serious musical chops. That combination led to staggering popularity, and with good reason. Fun fact: only three bands have sold more records worldwide than Queen. (If you guessed The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, well done.) I’m not sure that Paul Rodgers was the best choice for the first singer in the post-Mercury era, his brand of gruff blues rock not exactly meshing with the dizzying heights of glam/pop/prog/?-rock that Mercury, May, Rogers and Deacon brought to life. Adam Lambert? Yeah, now that’s inspired casting. Anyway way you look at it, it’s a great story. In 2009, he’s a no-name that decided to audition for American Idol, choosing the opening of “Bohemian Rhapsody” as his song. Two years later, he’s singing with Brian May and Roger Taylor at the MTV Europe Awards. Lambert’s body must have been a mass of purple caused by all the self-pinching.
Making the rounds for a new tour, the ensemble shook up the set list a bit from the 2014 stop but still played a ton of hits. Right out of the gates with a teaser of “We Will Rock You” that segued into “Hammer To Fall,” they proceeded to do just that. “Killer Queen,” “Somebody To Love,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” “Another One Bites The Dust.” Blam! Though bassist John Deacon called it a retirement two decades ago, May and Taylor are still breathing life into the storied songbook. Lambert has the vocal chops and personal style to fit right into this lineup, but he’s still in a bit of a bind. He’s under the obligation to serve the song but still be himself at the same time, and that’s not an easy tightrope to maneuver. Mercury’s vocal lines are burned into the minds of so many fans that it’s a bit disconcerting to hear some veering from the blueprint, a bit of vocal melisma here or a few ad libbed notes there.
Lambert didn’t have to do all the vocal leads, which gave him some time to for several stage clothing changes. After striding down the runway in a bright pink suit, he found a bright pink tricycle at the end, and sang “Bicycle Ride” while pedaling back to stage, quite impressively with some serious platform shoes. The transportation choices shifted gears when Roger Taylor took over lead vocals on “I’m In Love With My Car,” and a few songs later Brian May pulled up a stool at the end of the stage. Equipped with just a twelve string guitar, he sang a very touching tribute to Mercury’s “Love Of My Life” that was sweetly augmented by a video clip of Mercury singing the ending. Afterwards, May referenced his stereoscopic scientific work and took out a self-constructed ‘stereoscopic selfie-stick’ which he held up and rotated about, filling the giant display screen over the stage with throngs of cheering people from every corner of the building. A drum kit was also set up down at this increasingly busy part of the stage and Taylor wasn’t done singing, doing a very credible job of singing Bowie’s part of “Under Pressure,” a song that still captivates with its power. The show was not without some duff parts; song choices of “I Want To Break Free” and “Who Wants To Live Forever” did nothing to break up the outdated concept of a live drum solo and subsequent guitar solo.
Closing with their most famous song, “Bohemian Rhapsody” still brings chills. Despite efforts from Wayne’s World or Green Day to co-opt it, the song remains the cornerstone of what Queen was all about- tenderness and vulnerability, arching guitar work, immaculate harmonies and a dash or two of bombast. Wisely, the original recording started the song off, the famous four face motif from the video projected on the display. Lambert, propped up on a rising platform, took the vocals from “Mama, just killed a man” and this is where, for me, the Lambert/Mercury difference became the most apparent, through no fault of his own. Just as the mid-song guitar lead came in, May suddenly appeared in a cloud of smoke, rising from below the stage decked out in a cape and he even changed into some sparkly sneakers. After the call-and-response operatic bit the song whipped into their most famous guitar break and remains a supremely powerful rock and roll moment, Wayne and Garth be damned. Closing the encore with a bejeweled crown, Lambert and Queen did rock us, and they remain the champions. Freddie and John, too.
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