Treading on graves is risky business. You may find yourself either stoned by an outraged populace for heretical grave desecration, you may fall into a deeply dug hole that you can’t extricate yourself from. Hence: Queen. Queen has hit the road again for the first time since the Paul Rodgers led version that toured from 2005-2009. A notably gruff voiced singer, the former singer for Bad Company and Free was the antithesis of the operatic Freddie Mercury. (not quite Harvey Fierstein, but you get the idea…) Vocal limitations meant some important songs had to either be reworked or omitted altogether. Results of the collaboration were uneven, and fans were split on whether or not it was actually ‘Queen’. Most fell in the camp of “it’s not Queen”.
Now this year brings us another version of Queen, but more suited for the real old school Queen fan. Adam Lambert, runner up American Idol finalist in 2009 has been handed the golden microphone on a tour that started in June of this year. He had done a short tour of Europe, but this is the first major tour for the newly revamped line up. But why would anyone want to slip into the shoes of literally the most iconic vocalist in the history of rock n roll? His mere presence in the conversation instantly polarized the Queen camp into the curious and supportive vs. the ‘desecrating the legend’ folks. History has shown us that new vocalists in well established bands have a difficult row to hoe. Many hard core fans instantly reject any revamped band while the lead singer is still available elsewhere. The ‘Ripper’ Owens, a tribute vocalist in Judas Priest (which spawned the film Rock Star) while Rob Halford was away, Journey with another tribute singer fronting them to replace Steve Perry, Yes now on their second replacement singer (both from tribute bands) depping for Jon Anderson… but in this case, the lead singer isn’t available. (Mercury passed away in November 1991). After witnessing Queen this week in Boston, it is clear that this collaboration is a totally different animal. Lambert has grasped the reins of the nearly dormant Queen carcass and thrust them once more into the limelight. A difficult job indeed, especially considering the low level of respect that American Idol commands in the real music world. Fans were curious, would this actually work?
From the opening lines of ‘Now I’m Here’ from 1975’s monumental but relatively unknown Sheer Heart Attack, it was clear that this guy had the chops to hang with the material. Hints of Lambert’s near operatic range rang through loud and clear. Stone Cold Crazy, from the same album, followed quickly. Brian May has lost a step or two in the intervening 39 years since writing this barn burner, but accounted himself pretty well throughout the whole show. His lengthy guitar solo spot before Tie Your Mother Down was heavy on echo and distortion and light on actual guitar skills, and could not muster much of the echo tinged magic of his Brighton Rock meltdowns. But he also reproduced a nice David Gilmour influenced instrumental improvisation that was accompanied by laser like effects that filled the arena, mesmerizing the crowd in a syncretic Floyd-like moment.
Song choices were designed to please all Queen fans, from the die hards to the MTV generation-Seven Seas of Rhye, the extremely difficult to sing Killer Queen and In the Lap of the Gods were delivered with frightening accuracy. In the latter song, Lambert looked directly at the crowd as he sang the lines Mercury penned nearly 40 years ago:
“I can see what you want me to be, But I’m no fool”
Delivered without a hint of irony, you could tell he was well aware of the sacred territory he is treading on, and that no amount of wishcraft can obscure the fact that this lineup straddles the line between tribute band and real band. (Bassist John Deacon has not been heard from in over 15 years). From here Lambert grabbed control, mugging and camping furiously, endeavoring to show that he is perhaps the most openly gay performer in rock. (Aside: when I was in high school, my mother noticed a new Queen poster over my bed. “they are gay” she opined. I was stunned! Just because they dress in satin and feather boas, wear make up, have a logo font that seems to spell out Queer when looked at right and have a song called My Fairy King doesn’t mean they are gay! Right? Jeez…)
One of the most unexpected genuine moments came on a Freddie Mercury solo song, Love Kills. The band gathered around a small drum kit on the walkway into the crowd, and played a revamped version of a spotty song and turned it into one of the most heartfelt songs of the night. It was the first time where Queen faced off as equals, the feeling of being an actual real band, not a re-creation of past glories. Another highlight was Under Pressure, where Taylor took on Bowie’s part (two guys who aren’t actually on the original doing a pretty smashing vocal job too)
Other quibbles were the inclusion of the mildly talented son of drummer Roger Taylor on the skins for a couple of tunes and a drum battle solo. The progeny on stage phenomenon is viewed by some as endearing, but many others see this as a cringeworthy admission of surrender not unlike sweatpants in public. (See: Tangerine Dream, Van Halen, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe as guilty of bringing their kids into the band). While this is fun for dad, it’s not necessarily what the crowd has paid to see.
I was not a fan of latter day Queen, when the magic had all but dried up, and when songs like Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Radio Ga Ga, These Are the Days of Our Lives and even Another One Bites the Dust ruled the airwaves, I had bailed. In concert, though, these were major crowd pleasers, getting the parents of the Idol kids up and dancing along. (Don’t Stop Me Now and The Show Must Go On have been dropped from the set-after 4 and 19 shows respectively)
The show ended with a joyously uproarious Bohemian Rhapsody, and the one two punch of We Will Rock You, We Are the Champions, with Lambert sporting a regal crown. The crowd went fairly mental chanting and stomping along. A fitting end to a fantastic evening. But was it Queen?
Overall, it was an evening of spectacle and remembrance, honoring the creator of some of the most memorable songs in rock history, while passing the torch to a vocalist of the next generation. Within all of the effusive praise Lambert has rightfully garnered, it should be remembered that while Mercury was in the band, he was often pounding out some fairly complicated piano lines while delivering his jaw dropping vocal histrionics. This is an important point to note-Freddie Mercury was a singular talent, never to be seen again. His underrated talent in lyrics, the ability to weave myth, magic and a strongly innate literate sense into a seamless coherent whole was a huge part of the early career of the band, and was only surpassed by his beyond genius ability to use his voice as multiple instruments. It took six musicians (two partially hidden behind a curtained area) to pull off what Queen used to do as a quartet. This is what Freddie could accomplish. No slight to Adam Lambert, but there is more to the tale than just knocking the vocals out of the park.
So what would Freddie have thought? After what I had seen this week, I am fairly certain that I can picture a large buck toothed smile, a head tossed back, and the glorious laughter of delight. Freddie would be beyond pleased with what his legacy hath wrought. Go see for yourselves kids, you need to. Australia is up next.