A recurring joy of being a father is taking my daughter to gigs. Whilst I get a huge amount out of seeing her enjoy her own generation’s music (Lorde, Wolf Alice and Kooks for example this year), the special frisson when you see her enjoying music from your formative years. And as those older artists are sadly starting to pass away, it seems that there is a greater imperative to see those still treading the boards.
One of the things that I’ve noticed about parenthood and music is that there are some performers whose music creeps into children’s consciousness almost by osmosis – the Beatles, David Bowie, Michael Jackson. Queen fall into the same category, from primary school performances of “We Will Rock You” onwards.
I’ve had a bit of an odd relationship with Queen over the years, partly of my making, but they’ve been complicit. If we start with their side of the bargain, as an 80s teenager, their decision to play Sun City in Apartheid era South Africa (which I still think is wrong by the way) wasn’t in anyway endearing. I also didn’t perceive them as a serious albums band. This was informed by one Christmas where I’d put “a Queen LP” on my Santa list, only to receive the “Flash Gordon” soundtrack, which wasn’t necessarily where you’d start a Queen record collection.
But the “Flash” reaction (shall we call it that?) also illustrates that I was being a bit of a numpty about the band. They made some incredible singles during the 70s and early 80s and I sniffily dismissed them as not really contenders as a “proper” band. That was bloody stupid of me in retrospective – guilty as charged.
In 1985 I was lucky enough to see them at Live Aid and do the twenty minute stunning greatest hits set that since appears to have acknowledged as one of the high water marks of rock’n’roll performance. At then point I thought “well it will be tough to top that” and never saw them live again.
We know how that particular story ended – Freddie passed away, John Deacon faded into the background and Brian and Roger hired Free’s Paul Rogers. As good a singer as Rogers is, it wasn’t really the right fit. He’s a bit too meat and potatoes, a bit too bluesy and lacked that joie de vivre that Freddie brought to party after party.
In the meantime, Queen’s reputation as a credible band rose phoenix-like, with Metallica, Dave Grohl and Joshua Homme acting as prime advocates. We watched the Foo’s perform a touching “Under Pressure” at Glastonbury earlier in the year and it was at this point I thought, “let’s give them another go”. I’d seen them on the TV performing with Adam Lambert on a BBC New Year’s Eve special and was very impressed. My mates Pete and Ewan saw them around the same time and were raving about the show. So when the opportunity arose to combine a weekend in Manchester with chance to see the band with a bunch of friends, it was too good to miss.
Lambert is a revelation live and demonstrates what an astute bit of business it was by May and Taylor to start to work with him. Whilst the billing is “QUEEN and Adam Lambert” (note the pointed capitalisation), it really feels like a proper band rather than a karaoke experience. Lambert inhabits the songs, realising that not only do you need balletic vocals but also flamboyance to do this material justice. He acknowledges “the pink elephant in the room” early on. He isn’t Freddie he says but he was a fan just like everyone in the Arena and he is here to celebrate Freddie’s music. He wins the audience over if there was any lingering doubters and I would unreservedly recommend anyone feeling like “it isn’t really Queen” to put there reservations aside and take the evening for what it is.
Freddie is well and truly central to the experience. “Love Of My Life” is performed as a touching duet via video technology with May and before the encores he returns to stage to lead the call and response “Ayos” with the crowd as the setlist identifies them.
May and Taylor clearly feel very comfortable with Lambert’s presence. They’ve recognised that the most successful way of trying to replace Freddie involved an injection of vocal prowess and theatricality. He brings this in spades and his constant face pulling, gurning, strutting, pouting combine with his significant vocal chops to carry the show along. When one watches his audition and then subsequent performance during American Idol in 2009, there seems to be a significant degree of pre-ordination about this. It occurred to me after the show that this is a model that Jimmy Page could do well to emulate. It clearly bugs the hell out of him that Robert Plant doesn’t want to continue the reunion from the O2 show 10 years ago. Move on Jimmy and find yourself another vocalist, take a risk on someone younger who can reinvigorate the music. I know he’s tried with Steven Tyler and Myles Kennedy but give it another go. Bring back the joy that you clearly feel in playing this music to another audience.
The sections of the show that I enjoyed most unsurprisingly coincided with where I started enjoying Queen’s music. Ferocious versions of “Stone Cold Crazy” and “Tie Your Mother Down” kicked off the evening with gusto. “Killer Queen” was performed by Lambert in a purple suit with matching stack heels perched atop the robot from the “News Of The World” sleeve.
There are only two things missing for me.
The first is the only bit of Freddie’s skill set that seems to be beyond Lambert, which is his piano playing. I didn’t realise the way that Freddie moved from starting a song on the ivories before moving centre stage was so central to the performances until it wasn’t there.
The other was the quality of the vocal harmonies. A combination of age with a lack of John Deacon has dulled the crystalline effect of those voices singing in harmony. In particular, whilst “Somebody to Love” (my personal favourite song) was excellent, I was craving maybe the introduction of a gospel choir to reinforce the multiple melody and counter-melody lines.
These were two minor gripes though. Being with friends, arriving early to get a fantastic spot and seeing my daughter lap the whole arena rock thing up was just wonderful.
It takes guts and bravado for May, Taylor and Lambert with their fellow musicians to attempt to even carry on their legacy. Lambert truly gives this thing credibility and I’d reinforce again – if you have a place for Queen in your hearts, experience this extravaganza before it is too late. Even May wasn’t shy joining in the silliness, with a laugh out loud moment as he re-entered for the guitar solo in “Bohemian Rhapsody” via a hydraulic lift wearing a silver lamé cape, in swathes of dry ice.
Whilst the show must go on, it isn’t eternal or infinite. Enjoy it whilst it lasts.