A Pleasant Surprise

Let’s get two great Truths out in the open first thing.

  1. Freddie Mercury was not only the greatest rock singer of all time (yes, he was better than  Halford, Dio, or Plant), he was also the greatest rock frontman of all time (besting Roth, Daltrey, or Plant).  He was an absolute original who was gifted with an amazing voice and an unreal stage presence.
  2. While I call myself a Queen fan, I also acknowledge that I have little patience for their music prior to The Game.  I never need to hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” again.  Ever.  And I think the three-album run of A Kind of Magic, The Miracle, and Innuendo is just stellar, with The Miracle being my favorite Queen album.  I think this is less of a reflection on the band, and says more about my evolving musical tastes….I don’t have much patience for most music from the ’60s and ’70s, as much of it is sloppy and over-indulgent.  Not to mention the fact that classic rock radio has beaten all of every band’s radio hits into the ground.

So based on these two Truths, I’ve had no desire to go see what remains of Queen in concert.  I could have gone when they toured with Paul Rogers, but why?  Nothing against Paul Rogers, but nothing about the way he sings or the way he performs works within the framework of Queen.  And I knew nothing about Adam Lambert (never watched a single episode of American Idol).  Bringing him on seemed like the band was making a cash-grab, and had become a touring karaoke band.  No thanks.  Queen without Freddie and John (Deacon, the bass player) was Something Broken, and I didn’t need to see that.

Then my wife got free tickets.  In a luxury box, no less.  And on a night I was free, and not working the next day.  How bad could it be?

The first problematic thing was the luxury box.  Being in a box for a sporting event is fantastic.  There’s food and drink readily available, and there’s a private bathroom with a closed-circuit TV in it, so you miss nothing.  But this was a concert, and the owners of the box doled out tickets to their clients, which means that the box was full of people who were taking advantage of the free stuff, and who weren’t fans of the band.  So while we’re watching two living legends rock out, I was listening to a bunch of finance managers from various car dealers shouting about yield spread premiums over the music.  And then there was the family of four in front of us who watched the entire concert on the 5″ screens on their phones.

The second problematic thing was the concert itself.  The band’s touring under the name, “Queen”, which means that they’re going to play the radio hits, and dangit, that’s not the Queen I want to hear.  They’ve got a replacement singer, and they’re cashing in doing Greatest Hits tours, and they’re just going to suck (like The Eagles have sucked for well over a decade).  I could have looked up their setlist online, but had I not liked what I saw, I would have been in a lousy mood for the show.  So I let myself be surprised.

And surprised I was.

Queen took the stage (shaped like Brian’s guitar) accompanied by a projection of the robot from the News of the World album cover, and started in with, “We Will Rock You”.  Shit, here we go with the Greatest Hits.  But then a funny thing happened…..after a few seconds of Adam Lambert assuring us that they were going to rock us, the band lit into, “Hammer to Fall”.  Oh….oh damn, I love that song.  And that segued into, “Stone Cold Crazy”.  Huh….Say what you will, but those two songs are rather brave to open with, and did exactly what (I’d imagine) they were designed to do – hook skeptics like me.  Brian teased a bit with the intro to the next song….He played about 10 seconds of, “Headlong” before going into, “Another One Bites the Dust”.

Adam Lambert is no Freddie Mercury, as he himself acknowledged during a break.  His voice lacks Freddie’s clarity and power, and it’s really noticeable on the more muscular songs in the catalog.  But then they did, “Killer Queen”, and Lambert nailed it.  The flamboyance, the flirting with the crowd, the inflections, and the mannerisms.  At no point was he trying to ape Freddie; instead he put all of his own stamp on the song and the performance, and it worked perfectly.  Jumping ahead, literally every non-rocking song the band played, Lambert owned.  During those songs it was his band, and the whole audience (other than the arguing car dealers behind me) was in the palm of his hand.

He rode a ridiculous-looking bicycle around the stage for, “Bicycle Race”, and then vanished as the music changed a bit, and here we got to one of the concert’s high points.  Roger Taylor (looking more and more like Santa Claus every time I see him) ripped into, “I’m In Love With My Car”.  My jaw was on the floor.  Roger’s always been an amazing drummer, and I’ve seen him do this before, but my God, the man’s 68 years-old, and this was supposed to be a crappy karaoke concert.

They played, “I Want It All”, and I was somewhat let down.  The tempo fell off, and it seemed like they were just shuffling through it….Right up to the end when the guitar takes it faster.  The band seemed to wake up at that point, and finished strongly.

Brian did a beautiful tribute to Freddie, singing, “Love of My Life”, joined at the end by a video of Freddie singing the final verse.  Though it was clearly scripted and choreographed, it was still incredibly moving.

And a few songs later, my jaw hit the floor again as the baseline for, “Under Pressure” began.  Adam sang Freddie’s part, and Roger sang Bowie’s, and it was freaking perfect.  As was, “Who Wants to Live Forever”.  A song that’s so attached to Freddie Mercury, and yet Adam made it his own and provided a massively cathartic moment for everyone.

In all, they played 24 songs.  And yeah, I could have done without a handful of them.  And there’s the ones that I wish they’d played, like, “Breakthru”, “Scandal”, “Need Your Loving Tonight”, “One Vision”, and so on.  But truthfully I knew I wasn’t going to hear them, and given the breadth of their discography, they picked a damn good setlist.

Adam Lambert deserves a ton of credit too.  He’s stepped into the shoes of the Greatest of All Time.  He knows he has people against him just because of who he’s not.  He flat-out killed on the slower, softer songs, and acquitted himself satisfactorily on the more rocking songs.  Brian and Roger looked like they were having a blast.

No, it wasn’t Freddie’s Queen.  Nothing ever will be.  Memories and YouTube videos are all we have of that.  But it was awfully good nonetheless.

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