Concert Review – QUEEN + ADAM LAMBERT
How do you replace the most exciting and innovative frontman in rock-n-roll history? You simply don’t.
Last night, Roger Taylor and Brian May brought the songs of Queen to Las Vegas with a stellar backing band and a shining star in Adam Lambert. Unsure of what to expect, I opted for the upper level to keep some distance between myself and the current line-up. I was positive I wanted to hear Brian May’s guitar tone filling a giant arena but I wasn’t sold on how the entire experience would feel. Two hours later, I’m still not sure.
One of Queen’s many strengths was the ability to captivate the largest audiences with only their music. From their appearance at Live Aid (arguably the best 20 minutes of live rock ‘n’ roll ever) to tours where their trademark lighting rigs provided all the production, Queen have never relied on a wealth of tricks for their gigs. For this tour, the video production gets a heavy workout – with the Frank Kelly Freas-designed robot from the cover of 1977’s News of the World making multiple appearances in video and on stage. In addition, clips of Freddie are sprinkled throughout the show. It’s endearing to remember Mercury, but it also kept reminding the audience of how hollow the current show felt.
Decked out in sunglasses and a stars-and-stripes leather jacket, Lambert stormed the stage with the politically relevant (again) “Hammer to Fall”. Vocally, Lambert can hang with anyone and he won over the crowd with his ability to handle Mercury’s toughest songs. On stage, Lambert moves with the calculated showmanship of someone who was raised on videos of Freddie Mercury and George Michael. In a way, Lambert was a reflection of Michael’s reflection of Mercury when he joined Queen for “Somebody to Love” at Wembley Stadium in 1992. It’s like funhouse mirror karaoke.
And therein lies the problem with this current tour. Lambert, a natural star and gifted performer, cannot escape the shadow of Mercury. When Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers filled the slot, it was an easier transition because he was a straight-ahead rocker who had little in common with Mercury’s stage persona. Lambert’s style owes too much to Mercury and that only made me miss Mercury more. When Lambert nailed the powerful “Somebody to Love”, I found myself missing Mercury AND George Michael. Soon after, the familiar bass line of “Under Pressure” elicited a roar from the crowd but it drove another nail through my heart as the ghost of David Bowie joined Mercury and Michael. Maybe this was a bad idea.
Just when I felt like the concert might slip away into disappointment, the band reached deep for “It’s Late”, a lesser known album track from News of the World. The ghost of Mercury snuck backstage for a glass of wine and the band played mightily. Without the burden of expectation hanging over him, Lambert sang freely and made the song his own. Given the amount of hits the audience expects, it would be difficult to add more of the deeper songs to the set list; but that’s where the best opportunities lie for the Queen + Adam Lambert package to truly connect with audiences – even if we might not want to admit that as ticket buyers.
Raised high above the stage, Brian May’s guitar solo provided the most musically rewarding moment of the evening. His homemade Red Special guitar running through a wall of Vox amps creates one of the most distinctive tones in rock music. The effects are minimal and the notes are serrated but warm. The fullness of the tone remains unmatched in the rock canon and his creativity on the fretboard turned a stale pillar of the ‘70s arena rock script (the guitar solo) into a beautiful, soaring six-string opera. From there, the hits came fast and furious until they ended the night with “We Are the Champions”; which felt more like a cenotaph to their rich history than a triumph of the here and now.
The amount of empty seats in the upper levels was alarming, especially on a Saturday night in Las Vegas. Perhaps I’m not alone in the uncertainty of such an iconic band trying to recreate a kind of magic they once had. But musicians play music, so Roger Taylor and Brian May are wise to keep touring. They have found the best contemporary artist capable of handling the pressure of the gig in Adam Lambert. Having never seen American Idol or heard his solo work, he was a revelation as a performer. There is no doubt that Freddie Mercury would have been happy to see someone he so clearly influenced keeping the music alive for a new generation.