In a world where it’s unremarkable for successful rock bands to have fifty-year careers, it’s easy to forget that Queen lost Freddie Mercury less than halfway through theirs. And yet, like grieving offspring who refuse to countenance the idea of a widowed parent eventually getting re-married, a number of fans cling to the belief that the band should have called a halt to their lives back in 1991, are determined to file anything released since Mercury’s death in the “cash cow” drawer, and have reacted to Adam Lambert’s involvement with the kind of fury usually reserved for people who mistreat donkeys in small Spanish communities.
He’s not Freddie, and there’s no Queen without Freddie, they say. It’s impossible to like Lambert if you saw the band first time round, they say. He’s an American Idol runner-up. A pop singer. He’s “too gay”, suggested a reader on this website recently (you wonder if Paul Rodgers could similarly be considered “too heterosexual”). None of these things preclude Lambert from performing with Queen — or Queens Of The Stone Age, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, for that matter — but no-one’s suggesting he gets a free ride either. Only one thing matters: does it actually work?
Initially, it’s a bit of a shock. As the riff to opener One Vision winds up, Brian May’s unmistakable silhouette is projected onto an enormous curtain shielding the stage, and Lambert’s voice sounds shrill and out-of-control, frantically scrabbling around like a climber searching for footholds on a slippery rockface. It’s a song so tied to Mercury’s vocal that Lambert’s more boyish alternative naturally jarrs, but it’s a trick of the mind, and it doesn’t last. Once the ears have adjusted to the difference, it’s remarkable how well it all works, and the country hoedown of fourth song Fat Bottomed Girls’ sounds exultant, like an end-of-set climax, as Lambert squeals, “All of my fat-ass bitches out there… get on your bikes and ride!” He’s a captivating frontman, all puckered lips and fluttering eyes, from the generation of musicians who’ve gown up with their faces projected onto large screens, fully versed in the effect a deftly arched eyebrow can have on an arena.
He pitches the performance just right. After spitting an arc of champagne over the audience after Killer Queen (“Did I get you wet, lady? That’s what rock’n’roll is all about!”) he offers a quiet tribute to the band: “My goal is to celebrate the amazing music of Queen, and to bring you back to the place that made you love them in the first place.” At no point does Lambert’s performance ever feel like an impersonation of Mercury, although there are obvious high camp parallels, even if Mercury’s peacockery was less overt, more of the nudge-wink variety.
After a swelling Somebody To Love Lambert departs, leaving May alone on a stool at the end of the runway. He plays the unexpected (Flanagan & Allen’s Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner), the expected (a quite lovely version of Love Of My Life, with the audience doing the bulk of the work and Mercury appearing onscreen to finish the song), experiments with a selfie-stick, and delivers a brief lecture on Einstein’s twin paradox theory.
Other highlights? An acoustic, campfire romp through ‘39; Roger Taylor casually strolling the stage singing These Are the Days of Our Lives as cheers greet the appearance of John Deacon on the big screen; a giant disco ball dropping in from the ceiling during Who Wants to Live Forever, beams of light turning the arena into Studio 54; Taylor’s son Rufus taking over on drums for a barrelling Tie Your Mother Down; a genuinely dramatic version of Save Me courtesy of Lambert; and the appearance of I Want It All, a song the original band never played live.
The set ends with Bohemian Rhapsody. Entire audience rows sway together, arms round each other’s shoulders. Taylor’s riser rises, May solos in Zandra Rhodes gold, and the final coda is delivered with Lambert standing respectfully beneath the big screen, trading lines with two Freddies, beamed in from Milton Keynes in 1982 and Budapest four years later.
This writer did see Queen first time round, at their final Knebworth show. And while tonight’s performance may have lacked the sheer force of personality provided by Freddie, and his ability to physically dominate an audience, it’s somehow a much warmer celebration of the band’s music. It’s a tribute, yes, but it’s heartfelt and powerful and ridiculous in all the right ways. It’s Queen.
One Vision Stone Cold Crazy Another One Bites the Dust Fat Bottomed Girls In the Lap of the Gods… Revisited Seven Seas of Rhye Killer Queen I Want to Break Free Somebody to Love Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner Love of My Life ‘39 These Are the Days of Our Lives Bass Solo Drum Battle Under Pressure Save Me Who Wants to Live Forever Last Horizon Guitar Solo Tie Your Mother Down I Want It All Radio Ga Ga Crazy Little Thing Called Love Bohemian Rhapsody
We Will Rock You We Are the Champions
_Queen and Adam Lambert are featured on the cover of issue 206 of Classic Rock. If your newsagent doesn’t stock it, you can order the issue online from MyFavouriteMagazines. _
_Alternatively, you can download the Classic Rock magazine app from iTunes. _