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Queen & Adam Lambert – Brisbane 2014

It took me 39 years of dedication and slight obsession to finally see Queen live, so I guess  it’s only fitting it’s taken so long to write the review. Well, I should say half the original Queen with a new man out front to belt out the tunes, but this was still the real deal. The question is, was it worth the wait?

the night comes down

At 8pm the cavernous Entertainment Centre was full, a motley crowd spanning generations, anticipating the arrival of these ‘rock legends’ – with the new ring-in along. It was always set for a big show, with a stage that encouraged movement and interaction, projecting into the audience front and side, and with the runway flipping off to cleverly form the tail of the familiar Q from the mammoth Q-shaped screens spitting above, oised to project the detail of faces and activities and keep us all involved, and reigning above it all – the Queen logo. We had arrived and the stage was set.

No warm up act was needed here – the night opened with familiar guitar strains from way back, before a leather clad and studded Adam Lambert appeared singing Now I’m Here. And there they were, the ones we’d come to see, the greyed but chilled and cheery Brian and Roger. Their outfits belied the relaxed attitude – Brian in glorifed tracky dacks and runners and Roger in loose-fitting all white. (Only in the final moments did Brian appear in a black and gold lame bat-wing outfit reminiscent of past Zandra Rhodes-styled sartorial splendour and looking every bit of the rock star he very well knows he is.) In fact, they are relaxed. Why wouldn’t you be after working together and doing this for half a century, and clearly still having fun?

let me entertain you

The show was slick, polished and a range of other superlatives, and the men before us, the consummate professionals, played a ridiculous number of songs and anthems with ease, talent and gusto. We travelled the decades and styles, and we listened, and cheered, and of course, sang along. As you’d expect from Queen, the production was high and the light show spectacular with enough lasers and strobing to induce migraines in even the non-sufferers.

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There was hit after hit, with just a few band favourites that a lot of the audience weren’t familiar with, and there were some special quiet-paced moments. Brian took us on a sci-fi odyssey with his acoustic version of ’39, followed by a rousing rendition of Love of my Life, ably assisted by the full-chorus crowd and a screen reincarnation of the revered Freddie (so we could rejoice or he could hit the high notes?) And a special Brian acoustic interpretation of Waltzing Matilda for the Aussie crowd – magic!

Everyone got their time in the spotlight. The good humoured drum-off between Roger and his mop-topped clone, Rufus Tiger Taylor (I wonder what they called the dog?), brought along for extra  percussive input and occasional drum spot, was a fun battle of beats and generations. Both were brilliant, but youth pipped experience for sheer speed. Roger even came out from behind his kit to sing a couple of numbers in his trademark raspiness, taking up the Bowie role in Under Pressure and handing over the high notes when he could.

The unmistakable guitar work of the legendary Bri was highlighted throughout, with a mix up of guitars including his beloved homemade ‘red special’, and a camera perched on the neck so we could witness up close the fingering magic. Just a single Brian guitar squeal is enough to say Queen, and we got to hear a lot of them, with up to six mini guitar spotlights and one elongated and somewhat indulgent solo. Yes, I know he’s a legend and no one else can eek out those sorts of sounds, but 10 minutes was too long, allowing the momentum to drop and a few yawns to begin. Surely I haven’t missed the point and solos are really just for band members after all?

Freddie was suitably remembered and revered, and the supporting band members got their solos too, but there was no such nod to the original bass guitarist. He Who Can’t Be Named (John Deacon) has slipped into silent and reclusive retirement and lives on only through his contributions to the hit list, notably including I Want to Break Free and Another One Bites the Dust. It seemed strange, though, that Under Pressure, a song driven by one of the world’s best and most recognisable bass riffs (just ask Vanilla Ice) was presented with that pulsing riff mysteriously glossed over. Shhh – let’s not mention the bassist.

the show must go on

And what of the new man at the front? Of course there will always be detractors bemoaning the audacity of anyone trying to replace Freddie. But impersonation is not in Adam Lambert’s repertoire and a fine job he did on his own terms. With requisite thanks and praise to the late and great Freddie, and band, meted out, Adam Lambert commanded the stage, strutting and sauntering in glammed-up leather and gold – and heels. Confidence and sexy cheekiness aside which the crowd lapped up, he is a vocal powerhouse – versatile, gutsy and charming to boot. He can, and did, belt out and soar, and hit all those high notes with great ease, though verged on the shrill and shrieking in a few spots. Perhaps that audience champagne-spitting dolphin moment could have been left behind though. Glad I wasn’t in the front rows.

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One of his highlights was a moving rendition of Who Wants to Live Forever? – the audience captivated and emotion palpable. With such a vocal talent on board, it’s a pity Adam wasn’t allow a few more ‘hush’ moments to shine. His ability to conjure emotion and atmosphere in his vocals in laid back moments is one of his great strengths – power through intimacy, as is his ability to re-interpret songs, as we first saw with his reinvention of Ring of Fire on Idol. But these ‘Oprah moments’ as Adam described them, were few and far between, a squandered opportunity for the band and Adam to take the audience to a different place to see what he can really do with a drop of pace and intensity. Shame.

don’t stop me now

But make no mistake, regardless of who was out the front and how many lavish outfits he sported (five, in case you were wondering), the evening belonged to The Doctor and his guitars, and his blond (white) mate pounding the drums and singing up a storm. Brian comfortably lead the evening from behind, telling tales and quietly interacting with the crowd, his appreciation of what he does and who he does it for clearly on display. These two consummate professionals have been at it together for the best part of half a century. In reality, Queen lives on and has been discovered by a new generation through the work of these promotional and production kings, ably aided by the strong online presence of Dr May, uptaker of all things social media. The influence of the ‘rockers’  from way back was abundantly clear on the night, including song choice. With such a wealth of material, and hits, to choose from, I’m not sure how Dragon Attack made it onto the play list, or even Cold Stone Crazy and Tie your Mother Down. But wait – guess who wrote most of those? (even though I must admit Cold Stone Crazy featured heavily on the live play list in the 70s).

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more of that jazz

But for all the anticipated procession of hits, and the talent, and the roar of the crowd, and enough strobes to rival the Northern Lights on steroids, there was something missing for me. Was it that the stadium was so huge to render it impersonal, or was it that the crowd, at least where I was seated, seemed too subdued? Maybe. Maybe not – the crowd was largely going off, and the clever use of massive screens that brought facial expressions and guitar fretwork up close and personal counteracted the space.

I think for me though it was the bits of the music that were missing that I left hankering after, the multiplicity of musical elements that define Queen. Queen have long had a reputation as hard rockers, and that element was ever present during the show, but they were always much more than hard rock and rock anthems, love those as we may.

The magic of Queen’s music for me has always been in its versatility and range, its vocal complexities and harmonies and layering, and orchestral magic. The instrumentals, the cascading vocals, the compelling soft melodies, the interplay of light and dark. Think of the innovation of Prophet’s Song, the musicality of Father to Son, the frivolity of Seaside Rendezvous. Let’s not forget the shades of jazz, pop, funk, R&B, and even gospel, with snippets of honkey tonk, barber quartets, and progressive rock tossed in, a range of material that spanned genre and defied definition and kept audiences intrigued and sometimes disgruntled, and all of it sounding unmistakably Queen-esque with guitar squeals and chorused vocals and echoes aplenty. The stuff I cut my musical teeth on and which influenced the rest of the stuff I listened to for the next four decades.

And not just in composition, but in instrumentation as well – piano, ukulele, and harp for a start, and even a cappella. In fact, I missed the piano – the keyboards were present on stage but they blurred into the background. What would Bohemian Rhapsody ever have been without that piano and those five fateful rising chords, the ones that got me hooked in the first place?

Oh, I know – in a live show you can’t expect the complex vocal harmonies and layering of sounds that are possible in the studio – go and see We Will Rock You if you want that live – but there’s so much more breadth and depth to Queen’s musical legacy that just wasn’t represented. While it would never be possible to recreate the complexity of echoes, repeats and delays of Prophet’s Song live, a nod to Nevermore, Misfire, March of the Black Queen, or even the more recent These are the Days of our Lives would have made me happy and allowed some quieter, more poignant moments to emerge, and perhaps a broader perspective of the range of Queen’s musicality and history. The few too-soft opening strains of Procession (noo! what happened to the rest of Father to Son??) to start the show before it morphed into Now I’m Here instead just weren’t enough. Perhaps the concert needed to go for another hour to cover the ground. I’d certainly have stayed on.

Who wants to live forever?

In 1975 I  successfully convinced Sr Maria, our Year 9 music teacher, that our year simply must include Queen in our study of modern music legends (not just to justify my purchase of Spunky magazines as pictorial reference material). Who would have known how much more was to follow? On stage that night in Brisbane, a pretty good summary was displayed, with the age-spanning audience singing in unison testament to Queen’s place at the music legends’ table.

Of course it’s not the same – Freddie’s long gone, John’s MIA, these guys are 20 years past their prime, and no longer can Roger reach those ear-piercingly high notes, but the music, the musicianship, the magic, and the memories are still intact. And was it worth the wait? It has to be a definitive yes. Damn shame I hadn’t got there before, but I’m bloody pleased I made it this time – and I’d certainly go again.

The evening came to a close predictably: Bohemian Rhapsody was kept under wraps till the end, and the boys returned for a glorious We Will Rock You egged on by a chanting crowd and thousands of arms pumping the air, then We are the Champions signalled the end (fitting really).

Queen departed the stage to the layered strains of its guitar-fuelled ‘God Save the Queen’ as a shower of gold ticker tape sprinkled from above. Brian looked back to take one last wisftul look at the audience, gratefully drinking in the moment. He knew (we all did) it would be their last gig in Australia. He and Rog are mid-60s after all. After this, we will just have the music itself, and the videos, the chants, the foot stamping, oh – and the rock musical – and the memories themselves to keep us going.

And that will be enough.

Long live Queen.

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