By Adam Ellsworth
Now more than ever, “the people,” of all ages, want Queen. How lucky we are that Lambert, May, and Taylor are willing and able to deliver.
I have no data behind this, but if I had to give the average age of a Queen fan, based solely on the composition of the audiences at Queen + Adam Lambert’s 2014 and 2017 tours, I’d go with 55, and even that feels like it’s skewing a little young. This isn’t meant to be a snarky comment about the aging group or its fans, it’s just to say that even in the recent past, as I looked at those in the crowd around me, Queen, unsurprisingly, didn’t seem to be a band the kids were into.
Sunday night’s sold out Queen + Adam Lambert concert at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, MA is making me rethink that average. Everywhere I looked there were children, teenagers, guys and girls in their 20s, and my fellow 30 somethings. Part of this is probably because sitting in traffic to and from the old Great Woods is a hell best endured by the young, but the real reason must be the completely unexpected (at least by me) popularity of Bohemian Rhapsody, the 2018 Oscar-nominated biopic of Queen and their legendary frontman, the late Freddie Mercury.
Obviously Sunday’s crowd wasn’t completely made-up of people under 40. There were plenty of folks, maybe even the majority, who looked like they could’ve regaled the rest of us with “I-saw-’em-with-Freddie-at-the-Gahden” stories. But there can’t be any doubt that Bohemian Rhapsody, warts and all, has introduced Queen to a whole new, and in many cases younger, audience. Perhaps the film has also reminded people of all ages that there are few artists in the history of popular music that have such a catalogue, and such an ability to connect with a live crowd. By definition “Queen + Adam Lambert” isn’t Queen, and Sunday night’s show won’t make anybody throw away their copy of Live At Wembley ‘86, but this incarnation is as close to the real thing as we’ve had in three decades.
Credit the enduring musicianship of guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor (Queen bassist John Deacon retired from band activities in 1997) that, musically speaking, the Queen part of the equation still holds its own. It’s Lambert though that makes the whole operation work. Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen him play with May and Taylor three times now, but I honestly can’t imagine any other living vocalist doing what he does and handling all the different styles that make up the Queen sound. I still contend, as I did in my review of Q+AL’s 2017 show at TD Garden, that Lambert is most naturally suited to the pop/ballad/epic/operatic portions of the Queen oeuvre, but he’s more than adequate on the rockers. That he’s better equipped to handle the former than the latter says more about the truly unique abilities of Mercury than any short-coming of Lambert.
Early in the Xfinity show, Lambert had a chance to show off just how well he can handle those rockers, as the set opened with four straight bangers: early-70s standouts “Now I’m Here,” “Seven Seas of Rhye,” and “Keep Yourself Alive,” followed by the 1984 favorite “Hammer to Fall.” Only then did Lambert get to stretch out on some camp, as he wielded a large red Japanese hand fan while sitting on longtime Queen sideman Spike Edney’s piano during “Killer Queen.” In 2014, Lambert performed the song while laying on a chaise lounge, so I guess this counts as toning things down.
From there the night took in all the flavors of the Queen sound, from rock (“Tie Your Mother Down”) to pop (“I Want to Break Free”) to ballads (“Who Wants to Live Forever,”) to over-the-top-epics (“The Show Must Go On”). There were a few deep cuts (“In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited” and the truly unexpected “Machines (Or ‘Back to Humans’)”) and, of course, some of the most well-loved songs of the 20th century.
The first true highlight came in the first third of the set with “Somebody to Love.” Within a second, maybe two, of Edney’s opening piano notes, a flash of recognition spread through the crowd. There was then a vocal response that didn’t so much say, “Oh, I love this song,” as “I love this song, in fact it’s one of the greatest songs ever written, and it’s part of the soundtrack of my life, and I know it’s not Freddie up there on stage but right now I’m just so thrilled that this song is actually about to be played and I’m here to hear it.” Even one person feeling that feeling is enough, but when near 20,000 people have that reaction all at once, it produces a certain buzz that simply doesn’t happen at every rock and roll show. As the song reached its finale, generations were singing together in unison. Of course, Lambert nailed the climatic “Somebody tooooooo…l-o-o-o-o-o-ove,” and May, always the emotional member of the group, was visibly moved to tears, which he wiped away from both eyes with balled fists.
That reaction to “Somebody to Love” summed up the night. The younger among us have unfortunately had to accept that we never got to see “the real thing,” others were lucky enough to have that experience, and still others are perhaps old enough, but missed their chance. Regardless, everyone at Xfinity Sunday was so grateful to Lambert for singing us these songs, and most of all to May and Taylor for keeping the band, albeit in a different form, alive.
It was no surprise then that anytime the guitarist or drummer took centerstage, they were met with a roar, whether it was Taylor’s lead vocals on “I’m in Love with My Car” (lyrics so ridiculous the tune is actually made fun of in a memorable scene from Bohemian Rhapsody, and yet the song always works live) or May’s vocal on the bridge of “I Want It All.”
The May lovefest continued during his solo acoustic take on “Love of My Life.” In his introduction, he reminisced about the noise Bostonians used to make for the band in the old Boston Garden, and said that Boston treated the group “like rock stars before anybody else did.” This was more than the typical playing to the crowd though. May has consistently stated it was Boston that broke Queen in America.
The guitarist has always had a thin voice and as he’s gotten older it’s become more noticeable, but on “Love of My Life” his careful delivery added a poignancy a younger man wouldn’t be able to pull off. Naturally the crowd joined in, turning the song into the duet that has made it a Queen live staple since the ‘70s, and, as always happens at the end of Queen’s post-Mercury tours, Freddie himself made an appearance on the video screens hanging above the stage to up the emotion of the song even more and deliver the final lines, as he performed them at Wembley Stadium in 1986: “Hurry back, hurry back, don’t take it away from me, because you don’t know what it means to me.” Of course May knows what this means to all of us. I like to think Freddie knew too.
With the emotional portion of the program complete, Sunday’s final third provided one hit after another, from “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” to “Under Pressure,” to “Fat Bottomed Girls,” to the ultimate crowd participation song, “Radio Ga Ga.” The main set closed with a full-throated multigenerational singalong to (what else?) “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and then after two minutes of begging for more, Freddie made his final video screen appearance of the night, leading the crowd in the call and response of “Ah-Oh.”
The night ended, as it always does, with “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” No surprises there, but it’s not always a bad thing to give the people what they want. Now more than ever, “the people,” of all ages, want Queen. How lucky we are that Lambert, May, and Taylor are willing and able to deliver.
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.