To say that Queen, the original Queen, was larger than life is inadequate. They were larger than imagination, mostly due to Freddie Mercury. He was a force of nature, and was widely regarded as the ultimate rock stage performer. One of the greatest musical regrets of my life was never getting to see Queen perform live.
When I read that Queen was touring again, with Adam Lambert fronting, I was skeptical. Really, Adam Lambert? I’ve never been a fan of American Idol. Okay, Lambert has a legitimate, multi-octave voice and certainly has a flamboyant theatrical flair; he’s been compared to Freddie for years. And all the reviews of the Queen + Adam Lambert performances were resoundingly enthusiastic.
So I was excited and hopeful (I was excited just to be out in the city on a weeknight) heading into MSG. The crowd was restless, not having the luxury of knowing beforehand (thanks, Iman!) that the band was going on at 8:15, not the scheduled 7:30. The largely older crowd went wild as the lights came up on stage, and even wilder as Adam Lambert was silhouetted on the side screens, before making his grand entrance. Black studded leather, nice. They launched straight into “Now I’m Here” and it was rocking. Adam’s voice and energy were excellent, everything I’d hoped they would be. “Stone Cold Crazy” and “Another One Bites the Dust” had the crowd going, having fun, Adam’s vocals in good form. Yeah, he’s not Freddie, but I was okay with that (for now).
I was thrilled and impressed that the evening very much showcased Brian May and Roger Taylor. They weren’t just Freddie’s back-up band, after all. They ARE Queen, the last members standing, and those old dudes can still seriously rock. It was nice that Spike Edney is touring with them, as he was long considered a “fifth man” in the band. Roger Taylor brought the thunder on the drums, schooling (in my opinion) his son, who was onboard as backbeat drummer, in a battle of the bands-type interlude. And Brian May was in brilliant form, wowing with a solo during “Fat Bottom Girls” (during which Adam gave a quick shout-out to “All you fat-assed bitches!” in the crowd. How did he know I was there??)
A purple chaise lounge was brought on-stage for “Killer Queen,” with Adam reclining and camping it up. It was charming and worked just fine. A bit like Broadway, but that was okay; part of Adam owning his image. It is “Queen PLUS Adam Lambert,” and Adam Lambert was doing a great job being Adam Lambert.
Then we arrived at “Somebody to Love,” one of my very favorite Queen songs, and I started to feel the disconnect more, between what I felt about this song and how Adam was singing it. Again, the technical prowess was there, he was giving it his all, but compared to what Freddie poured into that song, it felt more surface than substance. He held that long note towards the end magnificently, but then on the last “Somebody to loooooooove….” he curled his lip and mugged for the camera. And lost me. I guess we’re not really supposed to compare him to Freddie, but how is it possible not to in this context? Freddie would tear my heart out on that final note, a pure cry of despair and hope crystalline. See, this is why I have trouble with American Idol, and consider it a negative influence on young singers today. It’s all about vocal gymnastics and emoting for the tight shot. Adam came up in a time when everyone sang in front of cameras, anyone could put up videos of themselves on YouTube. When Freddie sang live, he did it for the audience, not the cameras. Of course, it was a different time. When Freddie stuck his ass out at the crowd, it was shocking; when Adam does it now it’s just de rigueur.
Adam retreated off stage, and one of the nicest moments of the show began, as Brian sat down with an acoustic guitar and talked genuinely with the crowd. He sincerely thanked us for letting them be rock gods once again and his face was full of emotion. Then he sang “Love of My Life,” the crowd singing along, and everyone gasped when Freddie’s image came up on the screen. It didn’t feel gimmicky; it felt true. More retrospective on the screens followed with “These Are the Days of Our Lives.” It was such a nice moment that Brian can be forgiven for his later, WAY too long, solo that morphed into some kind of Ode to Psychedelia.
I got a bit more back on board with Adam during “Radio Gaga,” which made great use of the screens, flashing scenes of “Metropolis.” The crowd really got into the raised arms and clapping hands. The set finished out, predictably but happily, with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” incorporating a beautiful blend of live images, the old band performing, and parts of the iconic video. Oh, and the shiny gold cape on Brian! How evocative of the early Queen days! It was all a very fine flourish to the end of the set.
As the band came back out for the encore, the crowd was delirious over Adam’s final costume change. The leopard print suit and mega sparkly crown were obvious but fabulous. Yes Adam, we get it: you may not be THE Queen, but you’re A Queen. The finale of “We Will Rock You/We are the Champions” was done straight up, more of a tribute to Freddie than Adam trying to place his mark on the closing of the show.
I would have preferred a quieter ending to the show: “You’re My Best Friend,” my very favorite Queen song and one of my favorite songs period. That would have truly celebrated Freddie’s joyousness, his memory, rather than ending with the songs that have been co-opted by sporting events. But his spirit was in the building, if only because of so many there who cherished him.
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