To their credit, replacing Freddie Mercury is not something his surviving bandmates have ever tried to do.
By Adam Ellsworth
A quarter century after the death of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, one thing remains clear: it is impossible to replace Freddie Mercury.
To their credit, replacing Freddie is not something his surviving bandmates have ever tried to do. “Queen” has never toured with a stand-in singer. When the group’s guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor have hit the road in the years since Mercury’s death (bassist John Deacon retired in the late ‘90s), the shows have always been billed as “Queen + [Insert Name of Famous Singer Who Isn’t Freddie Mercury Here].” First, this meant Queen + Paul Rodgers when the Bad Company/Free vocalist toured with the band between 2005 and 2008. Since 2014, it has been Queen + Adam Lambert that have filled arenas across the globe.
The “Queen”/”Queen +” distinction might seem trivial, but it is most definitely deliberate. It makes clear that while others can sing with the band, they can’t join. The job of Queen vocalist is forever filled.
This is more than fine by Lambert. As he told the TD Garden crowd early in his set with Queen last Tuesday night, he’s fully aware that he is not Freddie Mercury. He’s just a fan who ended up with a pretty sweet gig. The only difference between him and his fellow Queen supporters, Lambert joked, is that while they were in the audience, he was up on stage, wearing a “really gay pink suit.”
Lambert’s choice of attire is hardly the only thing that differentiates him from the people who pay to see him perform with Queen. For one thing, it’s doubtful that anyone in the Garden crowd last week could have matched his vocal prowess. From rockers like “I Want it All” to the power ballad “Who Wants to Live Forever,” there is no part of the Queen canon his voice can’t handle — though there’s no denying he was more in his element on the latter song than the former. Similarly, while he held his own on heavier tunes like “Hammer to Fall” and “Stone Cold Crazy,” he was far more at home with the cabaret of “Killer Queen” and the poppier “Don’t Stop Me Now.” In short, he can sing rock, but he’s not a rocker. He just doesn’t have the gravel in his voice. On the other hand, if the concert were put on by Queen + [Insert Name of Singer with Great Rock Voice Here], would that vocalist be able to pull off something as playfully silly as “Bicycle Race?” It’s damn near impossible to find someone who can nail all the different styles that equal “Queen” – yet more proof that there’s no replacing Freddie Mercury.
As for the Queen side of the equation (which was augmented by keyboardist Spike Edney, bassist Neil Fairclough, and percussionist Tyler Warren), May supplied his signature riffs and nimble leads throughout the night and, especially on “Get Down, Make Love,” ladled out the guitar atmospherics that have always been a part of his arsenal but that he never seems to get credit for. What other guitarists do with effects pedals and amplifier nobs, he does with just his fingers. Taylor was his usual rock star cool, effortlessly bashing his way around the kit and providing the backing vocals that were always so integral to the Queen live sound as well as lead vocals on “I’m In Love with My Car.”
The set itself was predictably heavy on hits, though this approach led to a missed opportunity. When Queen + Adam Lambert toured in 2014, they celebrated four decades since the 1974 Queen releases Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack by featuring some songs they might not have otherwise played (most notably “Now I’m Here,” “Seven Seas of Rhye,” and “In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited”). The current tour corresponds with the 40th anniversary of Queen’s sixth album, 1977’s News of the World. The very stage Queen and Lambert performed on was based on the cover of that album. Despite this, they provided only three selections from the record, and two of those were “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” which they obviously would have trotted out no matter what the year. The third track, “Get Down, Make Love,” was a welcome surprise, and while lesser known by comparison it was a Queen concert staple from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Surely though there was room for at least one more cut from the album. The epic “It’s Late” would have been a natural showcase for Lamberts chops, or, if they wanted more of a rocker, “Sheer Heart Attack” would have been an obvious choice. If a place could have also been found for the cocktail jazz of “My Melancholy Blues,” then all the better.
It’s a shame there wasn’t more from News of the World, though the night had its share of highlights regardless. Particularly stunning: the trinity of “Somebody to Love” (which started with just May’s guitar and Lambert’s vocals before building to its full gospel glory), “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and “Under Pressure,” all played at the end of a catwalk that led out into the crowd. There aren’t many groups touring today that can unleash three songs of such enduring quality all in a row. Then there were the moments that always work whether it says Queen or Queen + on the marquee, like the audience duet on “Love of My Life,” and the synchronized clap-along to “Radio Ga Ga.”
“Love of My Life” specifically has become the emotional highpoint of any Queen + concert, and last Tuesday night was no different. May, alone with his acoustic guitar, took lead vocal on what was once a Freddie standard. His voice wasn’t made for a tune like “Love of My Life,” which made him all the more vulnerable. sitting alone on a stool at the end of the catwalk, surrounded by thousands of beams from cell phone lights. He traded lines with the crowd before taking a brief solo, and then, for the first of two times Tuesday night, Mercury himself (via footage from Queen’s 1986 stand at Wembley Stadium) appeared on the big screen that was hanging above the stage to finish the song, much to the delight of the Boston crowd. With the real, in-person, May looking on, the late-singer took his bows, bent over, and stuck out his ass.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has an MS in journalism from Boston University and a BA in literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.