Much has changed since Queen last visited our shores in 1985. In the music industry the biggest development is our method of consumption. Digital downloads and streaming makes music more accessible, but with ease of access comes the danger of indifference, making the power and vitality of live performance more important than ever. Back in the day Queen were masters of the live spectacle and their current tour proves that they still know how to wow an audience, bringing the capacity crowd at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena back to a golden age of rock’n’roll excess. It is a great shame that they chose to bypass Adelaide on their current tour.
Of course the band has changed significantly in that time as well, and the big question mark over this current iteration is whether Adam Lambert could fill the considerable shoes of Freddie Mercury. Lambert is a charismatic performer and a technically brilliant singer who seems to be able to hit all the notes with ease. He is not Freddie but neither does he try to be; thankfully Lambert does not offer an imitation but takes ownership of the songs, giving renditions that are both satisfying and fresh. Despite the bravado of his performance, he appears genuinely humbled to be fronting such an iconic band.
The show works in large part because of the focus on the two original members, Brian May and Roger Taylor. Although Lambert enjoys the majority of the audience banter (which unlike his predecessor often appears a little too scripted), it is clear than in the absence of their former frontman, the band-leader is now very much guitarist, May. This is the great strength (and very occasionally the weakness) of the show.
May is a hugely likeable presence and had the audience hanging on his every word in the moments that he talked away in the casual style of a fireside chat. Importantly, his guitar playing is as good as ever. No longer in the shadow of Mercury, May’s solos were at the forefront of the concert and demonstrated his awesome skill: whether playing slow and bluesy, shredding furiously or through his signature harmonising. There were occasional misjudgements though. His lengthy mid-set guitar solo was technically brilliant but overstayed its welcome and slowed the enjoyable momentum the show had built. Another questionable choice was May’s garish gold caped costume for the final section of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which bordered on self-parody. It’s a strange thought for a band synonymous with excess, but maybe Freddie might have reined some of this in. Such moments, however, were only a minor distraction and never derailed the great fun of the concert.
Taylor also proved that his prowess has not dimmed with age, producing powerful drumming and playing off against son, Rufus, who provided additional percussion. Taylor also surprised with some impressive vocals and it is interesting to note that he wrote many of the band’s hit songs (“Radio Ga Ga”, “A Kind of Magic”,”Heaven For Everyone”, “Breakthru”, “The Invisible Man”, and “These Are the Days of Our Lives”). With Lambert absent from the stage for sections of the show the original members stepped up to the microphone. While not as technically brilliant in this department, it gave the concert an important air of authenticity. One of the great highlights of the night was “Under Pressure”, with Taylor holding his own on the Bowie parts against Lambert’s vocals.
But it wasn’t just May and Taylor from the original lineup whose presence made the show work so well. Mercury himself was a significant feature of the concert, occasionally appearing on the large backdrop screen. On “Love of My Life” Mercury seamlessly assumed vocals from May, a genuinely emotional moment of the show that reminded us of the how much we miss the great frontman. This effect was never overdone but the conceit was taken a little too far at the close of the main set, where the middle section of “Bohemian Rhapsody” had the crowd watching the film clip without a live element left on stage before May et al rejoined for the final section. The crowd didn’t seem to mind, however, enjoying a grand sing-a-long.
Other notable songs were “Fat Bottomed Girls” showcasing the band’s signature note perfect harmonies and Lambert’s camp sense of humour and “Killer Queen” where Lambert minced about the stage before hamming it up on chaise-lounge which he clearly enjoyed for the fabulous factor and his genuine ability to laugh at himself. Lambert’s costumes reflected his sass; leather ensembles, sparkly platform shoes and knee-high boots suited his flamboyance without looking overdone or caricature.
With a remarkable light show, smoke machines and a finale showering the crowd in gold ribbon, the concert was a huge spectacle from start to finish that lived up to the glory days of stadium rock. In the early songs the sound mix was a bit harsh on the ears, lacking something in subtlety, but this improved as the night progressed. In every other respect the rendering of these songs was spot on. The great danger of this incarnation of Queen was the potential to undermine one of the great rock’n’roll songbooks. Thankfully, however, it leaves that impressive legacy in tact, with the audience appreciating the opportunity to hear those tracks performed once more in all their spectacular glory.
Live music review: Queen + Adam Lambert by Matthew Trainor and Libby Parker
Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, 29 August 2014
View the set list here.
Feature photo by Neal Preston