It can’t be easy being Adam Lambert these days. Sure, he’s living everyone’s rock ’n’ roll fantasy by fronting the rock icons in Queen on a cross-country arena tour. On the surface his life seems to rule in a major way, but I began to think again as I approached Madison Square Garden Thursday night. I had expected to see a mixed crowd of young Glamberts who have followed Adam’s art and antics since his American Idol days, as well as classic rock fans thrilled to hear the vintage songs played live once more. But the well-worn Queen t-shirts were plentiful and the Lambert love appeared few and far between as I took my seat.
He is about to play to a packed crowd of 20,000 people (New Yorkers, no less!), who all seemed to be thinking the same thing: “Can the kid pull it off?” Under pressure, indeed.
Ordinarily, the terror of playing a massive venue is (slightly) offset by the knowledge that everyone in the room loves you -or at least likes you enough to shell out some cash and make the journey to midtown. But Lambert is stepping into the massive platform shoes of dearly-departed Queen vocal monarch Freddie Mercury: lover of life, singer of songs, and one of the greatest performers in music history. Mercury redefined the role of the rock frontman, and the songs he wrote and sang are among the most beloved in the genre’s cannon. Two decades later, fans still mourn his tragic death from AIDS complications in 1991. Nothing against Lambert, but this could get dangerous.
It was a gutsy undertaking, but he certainly showed no signs of nerves as he strutted onto the stage with a feline prowl that owed more to Jim Morrison, and a leather-studded wardrobe borrowed from Faith-era George Michael. But the voice? That was pure Freddie. The lyrics to show opener “Now I’m Here,” seemed to take on new meaning, serving as a defiant response to any skepticism. He not only hits the operatic notes, which we must remember is no easy feat, but he accomplishes it with a mix of ferocity and glam elegance that do the song justice. You can almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the crowd as Lambert lets out the song’s final octave-straddling scream. This is gonna be alright.
But it’s far from a million-dollar karaoke starring Adam Lambert. Six-string virtuoso Brian May took his rightful place at the front of the stage, shredding on the homemade “Red Special” guitar that has been his secret weapon throughout the band’s career. His magnificent mane has turned white with age but is otherwise still intact, transforming his appearance into that of a rock wizard. He turns 67 today, yet his fingers are still as nimble as ever. Drummer Roger Taylor (65 years old next week) looks straight out of the country club in a dapper white shirt and slacks, but his robust frame attacks the skins with deliciously impolite fury.
This set marks the first time remaining Queen members have returned to the New York landmark since their two-night stay in July 1982. As a frame of reference, Adam would have been six months old at the time. Neil Fairclough replaces original bassist John Deacon following his retirement in 1997, and the personnel are rounded out with long-time keyboard player Spike Edney, and Taylor’s son Rufus Tiger Taylor on auxiliary drums. A similar arrangement toured in 2004 with Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers on the mic, but this is their first excursion with Lambert.
The crew went full throttle into “Stone Cold Crazy” before they downshifted into the funky “Another One Bites The Dust,” sending Lambert preening around the stage like his own private catwalk. “Fat Bottomed Girls” thankfully resurrected the fantastic vocal blend between May and Taylor, so crucial to the band’s trademark harmonies. The elaborate Louis XIV chaise lounge wheeled out for”Killer Queen” was a bit contrived, but it was hard not to smile as Lambert reclined seductively and cooled himself with a lace fan, turning the tune into a Gilbert & Sullivan parlor show.
“When I feel lonely I just drink a lot and douse myself in rhinestones like any sensible gay,” he jokes after guzzling Champagne from the bottle and spitting bubbly onto the front row. “Perhaps I’m just waiting for…somebody to love.” Cue music. He addresses the audience with a self-aware, humble, and almost shy manner that would have Freddie shaking his head. Despite this, it only endears him to the crowd. Lambert is always respectful of the legends with whom he shares a stage, at one point literally bowing before Brian May has he tears off a solo. He is always reverent of the music, and always grateful to be in the spotlight.
He’s undeniably sweet and charming, not to mention hugely talented, but the effect leaves me with a sense of lacking. I want a large-and-in-charge powerhouse of a front-man, delightfully arrogant and full of gravitas. But of course, there would be cries of “How dare he!? Who does he think he is?” if Lambert attempted such shtick. It’s a tricky Catch-22 situation, and he made the very best of it by erring on the side of caution, humility, and sincerity.
Like it or not, the entire evening was haunted by the benevolent specter of Freddie Mercury. This was made clear midway through the show when Lambert vanished from the stage, leaving May center-stage to perform “Love Of My Love” on an acoustic 12-string guitar, as he used to do with his old friend by his side. “Some of you will remember -and some of you were not even born yet- there was a man named Freddie Mercury,” he said simply, visibly moved to tears. “And he was extraordinary.” After trading verses with the crowd, the familiar image Freddie himself appeared on the screen to sing the last lines.
The musical eulogy continued with Roger Taylor taking the lead on “These Are The Days Of Our Lives,” a melancholy track he wrote for the final album before Mercury’s death. A montage of goofy ’70s-era home videos had a tender effect, making in clear that this was primarily a tribute show and that the Lambert-led outfit was in no way in competition with the Queen of yesteryear. As Adam himself told the crowd, “There can be only one Freddie Mercury.”
Respects having been paid, Lambert returned to the front lines for “Under Pressure,” with Roger Taylor offering an impressive approximation of David Bowie’s vocal parts from behind the drum kit. From here on out, the band really hit their stride, striking back relentlessly with break-neck versions of favorites “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Radio Ga Ga,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and (appropriately enough) “The Show Must Go On.” But of course, the built-in highlight was the epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” finale, incorporating footage from the band’s groundbreaking music video and Freddie’s classic 1986 performance at Wembley Stadium.
The only possible follow-up was the one-two punch encore, “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions.” In the end, it was a promise fulfilled. We were rocked, Queen is still the champion, and Lambert is a skilled voice to ensure that their music will remain live for a generation of fans. Obviously he is no Freddie Mercury, and that’s OK. The minute you stop looking for Freddie is the minute the fun really starts.
1. Now I’m Here
2. Stone Cold Crazy
3. Another One Bites the Dust
4. Fat Bottomed Girls
5. In the Lap of the Gods… Revisited
6. Seven Seas of Rhye
7. Killer Queen
8. Somebody to Love
9. I Want It All
10. Love of My Life
12. These Are the Days of Our Lives
13. Under Pressure
14. Love Kills
15. Who Wants to Live Forever
16. Tie Your Mother Down
17. Radio Ga Ga
18. Crazy Little Thing Called Love
19. The Show Must Go On
20. Bohemian Rhapsody
21. We Will Rock You
22. We Are the Champions