So first let me start off by saying I’m not a Queen fan. Or at least, I didn’t think I was until I found myself whisky in hand, drunkenly repeating “just listen to him” whilst showing some friends the Queen and Adam Lambert Big Ben show on BBC iPlayer after returning from a night out.
The thing is, by the powers of what must be osmosis, there are very few popular Queen songs I don’t know, yet I don’t remember listening to them. I do remember that at just around the perfect age for forming music obsessions ‘One Vision’ was released, and I loved it. But for some reason I decided I didn’t really like Queen, and that first love didn’t grow. ‘One Vision’ was a particularly rocky song and less of the flamboyance, layering, and harmony vocals of the band’s back catalogue. If pushed I’d wager that 14-year-old me decided this was the reason. Or it could be that Freddie Mercury’s proclaimed in ‘Bicycle Race’ he didn’t like Star Wars! I honestly don’t know.
In 1992 many of the bands I adored at the time played the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium. This confused me as a) I loved the bands playing, b) loved the music they played that day, c) thought I hated Queen. Fast forward to around 2012 when a friend I’d recently met, and whose music tastes I respected, told me that they were probably his favourite band. He wrote about it here.
On Wednesday I saw Queen live. Yes, it’s not THAT Queen, and it never could be. However Brian May and Roger Taylor were two-thirds the backbone which along with John Deacon formed the band which created the legacy. I was very excited at the prospect, and given what I’d seen on TV knew that this could be a fantastic night. A curtain was draped over the stage and as lights went down the synth into to (believe it or not) ‘One Vision’ kicked in. 14 year-old me couldn’t believe his luck!
The curtain dropped and the band was in full flow, sounding powerful and rather special. It was Adam Lambert who was immediately commanding your attention however, in his full leather outfit and round mirrored glasses. The next song out the traps was ‘Stone Cold Crazy’, which again made teenage me excited due to my Metallica introduction to the song. I was loving this!
‘Another One Bites The Dust’ was next, and then we had ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’. Hit after hit ensued. Roger Taylor’s drumming was stellar, I particularly liked that in some songs he held his sticks backward providing a thicker “thump” which really drove the delivery forward. Brian May is a guitar god by most people’s standards. I’d never really considered his talent until standing there watching him effortlessly play. It hadn’t crossed my mind that he was the only guitarist in the band, and he carried the melody for everything. In every song his riffing was off the scale, his solos and guitar work were on point and a joy to behold. And then there was Adam Lambert.
Never trying to sound like Freddie Mercury, obvious comparisons were no doubt being made all around the room as we watched this performance. We were perhaps five songs in when he started walking to the end of the catwalk which ran through the crowd. Adam started by saying hello to Glasgow. Then, and I paraphrase slightly delivered the following, “I know it’s early in the night but thank you for accepting me. It as an honour to play each night with the rock and roll legends behind me. I hope tonight reminds you of the one and only Freddie Mercury and we celebrate his song writing and life. Tonight is a celebration.” He said it with such humility, it was obvious he meant it, and the crowd provided the response he deserved.
By the time ‘Killer Queen’ was played I decided I was a little bit in love with Adam Lambert. His show-boating, flamboyance, wicked humour, playing to the camera, the crowd, or even sometimes to himself was a joy to watch. He sung the entire song from a Chez Lounge perched at the end of the catwalk whilst fanning himself and it was pretty much perfect. The tongue-in-cheek wink as he missed out the word “mind” in the line “She’s guaranteed to blow your mind”, or as he looked behind to watch the guitar solo and in awe mouthing “Oh my God! That’s Brian May” were funny and brilliant. He sung Freddie’s lyrics as if they were his own, adding his own personality with subtle runs and licks, never once trying to imitate or do karaoke.
Roger Taylor took to vocals to sing ‘These Are The Days of Our Lives’ and did a stellar job of it. The video screen behind him played old video clips of Queen, with Mercury and Deacon both receiving huge cheers. Roger walked around the stage as he sung, but never quite interacted with the crowd, rather he shuffled back to his kit. This led to a drum solo which took place between Taylor and his son Rufus Tiger Taylor (who had added percussion throughout the show). A second kit appeared at the end of the catwalk which Roger played. The solo was an impressive call and response between the two as they attempted to out-drum each other. Roger stayed out in the crowd as he shared vocal duties with Lambert for the Bowie/Queen track ‘Under Pressure’.
Soon it was time for Brain May’s guitar solo, and given his top-notch playing all night I expected something special. With exception of ‘Last Horizon’ and ‘Brighton Rock’ played in among it, the solo was bizarre and (given my expectations) sadly pretty shit. The noise, echo, reverb and weird Theremin-type sounds followed by inane chug-chug chugging riffs sounded more like a pre-show sound check warm-up. This was an opportunity to take the crowd with him, to stand in the spotlight and blow us away. I’m confident the guitar god worshippers and those who understand the wizardry he was employing loved it a technical level, but it alienated the majority of the crowd around where I was stood, including me. During it, I turned to my wife and she had disappeared. Then I realised she was bent over fixing something in her shoe. “What’s up?” I asked. “This solo is the moment I realised my in-sole was folded!” Mrs Scramble called how I felt in one sentence!
‘Tie Your Mother Down’ had Rufus playing drums with Roger at the side on maracas. Perhaps they prefer it this way, but I couldn’t help wonder if it was to give Roger a bit of a rest during the two-hour-plus set. He was back behind the kit for the next track ‘Radio Gaga Gaga’ and for the rest of the night. After the first big crowd sing-along of the chorus Lambert ended up down in the crowd, slapping hands and getting selfies taken. It was clear how much he was being loved tonight.
Whilst Adam was introducing ‘Somebody To Love’, Brain May grabbed the mic and asked the crowd, “What do you think of the new guy!?” This took Lambert by surprise and the massive and prolonged cheers from the crowd left him looking embarrassed, and somewhat flustered as he tried to remember what he was saying. May looked extremely happy as he walked back to his own mic.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is a classic song in music history, not just Queen music history. As the piano started Adam sung the first verse immaculately. The screen burst to life and the image of Freddie Mercury sung the next verse to massive applause. Lambert sung again before we had the video interlude for the middle section of the song. As Brian May returned to the stage with a massive riff (think Wayne’s World) it was obvious just how amazing Queen are. This song is special and to witness it live in the only way possible today is a pleasure. The ending however was the most special and poignant moment of the entire evening. With Adam walking up to the screen and pointing up to the video of Freddie, the pair traded line after line and shared harmonies throughout the “nothing really matters” and “any where the wind blows” ending. WOW!
With the solos and one or two deeper cuts there was a lull in the middle of the set for me, which was a real shame. In retrospect it also coincided with when Adam Lambert wasn’t on stage. I am sure for the die-hard Queen fans those songs were up there as equally important however.
The show was billed as Queen + Adam Lambert, not simply Queen (with a new singer). The reason was obvious from almost as soon as the curtain dropped; Adam Lambert is every much a superstar and accomplished frontman in his own right and deserves the billing. What a show this was, and Adam hasn’t replaced Freddie (nobody could) Yes many parallels can be made, such as his immense vocal range, the over-the-top flamboyance and wit, and that he is every bit the one in a billion find for May and Taylor that Freddie was. Lambert is unique, can sing every note, brings his own personality and charisma, and frankly steals the show. The fresh vigour that he has injected to the performances comes across in spades from the band; it is clear that all on that stage love performing together.
Queen always had a frontman, never just a singer. They’ve always needed that larger than life personality up front. It’s called a “frontman” for a reason, and Adam Lambert is every bit the frontman.
Photos courtesy of Graeme Hunter