Arguably what we now think of as stadium or arena rock – big anthems designed for crowds to sing and sway along to and spectacular stage shows to match – can be dated back to 1977. After being overwhelmed by the reaction to some of their live shows, Queen went and penned two anthems in ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are The Champions’ specifically written for live audience participation.
So it was with fitting timing that the remaining active founder members in Brian May and Roger Taylor put the Queen show on the road again 40 years on, with charismatic American singer Adam Lambert in the unenviable role of filling the irreplaceable Freddie Mercury’s shoes.
The sense of surprise was absent compared to the stunning impact of their first full UK tour with Adam just under three years ago, but anticipation was still high with a new stage set and revamped setlist promised. Celebrating 40 years of ‘News Of The World’, a giant image of the dystopian robot on the album cover (aka ‘Frank’) hovered over an elaborate stage lit deep red.
They opened with a few bars of ‘We Will Rock You’, but instead it segued into one of my favourite Queen tracks in ‘Hammer To Fall’. Despite Adam’s vocals sounding a little thinner than Freddie’s, it was a reminder that even in their mid-eighties heyday, when they diversified into pop and dance sounds, they could still rock out with the best, and indeed began an opening trilogy of hard rocking numbers with ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ and the more familiar ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ which is the side of Queen I frankly prefer and a reminder that their patches used to adorn many a metal fan’s denim waistcoat.
Queen’s diversity was always their stock in trade though, so the funk of ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ followed before another rocker in ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’, acting as a showcase for Brian May and his spectacular barnet to career down the catwalk as he delivered an extended solo in that instantly recognisable guitar style.
Adam played his first crowd introductions well, paying tribute to Freddie Mercury and that he could never replace him but was celebrating his music, as well as being disarmingly open about his high camp routines. These included delivering ‘Killer Queen’ atop a giant ‘Frank’ that came out of the floor, and totally deleting Rob Halford’s motorbike act by riding a pink tricycle around the stage during ‘Bicycle Race’.
It was perhaps a relief when that segued into more traditionally macho travel-related fare in Roger Taylor’s ‘I’m In Love With My Car’ and ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. ‘I Want It All’ was also refreshingly rocky with Brian’s solo appearing to go into overdrive.
However other than a quick snatch of ‘Get Down Make Love’, the promised deep dip into the back catalogue never materialised. But with one of the most recognisable collections of hits in rock history, this was a minor blemish of concern only to diehards.
One of the hallmarks of an arena show is using the space on stage to involve the audience, so much of the mid set action was focused around the walkway jutting far into the arena. Brian rather croakily introduced a solo ‘Love Of My Life’, getting the audience to wave lighters and sing most of the song before a recorded vocal cameo from Freddie, then after ‘Somebody To Love’, which suited Adam’s theatrical nature, and a drum solo, Roger and Adam duetted very effectively on ‘Under Pressure’.
‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, never my favourite, was the first song to really get substantial numbers of people in the tiered seating to their feet and as the set wore on, it was Queen’s poppier moments that dominated. ‘Radio GaGa’ and ‘I Want To Break Free’ were rapturously received, but the real revelation was ‘A Kind Of Magic’.
Roger may be starting to look like a cross between Old Man Steptoe and Bernard Cribbins, but the evergreen drummer sang lead vocals superbly, while Brian was given scope to improvise and extend the guitar solo. That was a relatively rare event as general policy seemed to be for the band – in which percussionist Tyler Warren, longtime keyboard player Spike Edney and bassist Neil Fairclough all played effective and disciplined roles – to deliver the hits as close to the recorded versions as possible.
Adam’s emotional delivery of ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’ would have silenced any remaining critics but I again wondered during Brian May’s solo slot why it was so dull for a man of his talents. It was a momentary lull before the ultimate, epic climax of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the guitarist emerging from beneath the stage in flowing gold cape.
A clip on the big screen of Freddie doing his famous ‘day-oh’ call and response video clip, led into the inevitable encores of those songs – ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are The Champions’, the latter finally getting every single person on their feet joining in, as Adam in his crown and regal robe and Brian strode down the catwalk, drawing the crowd’s adulation as they were submerged in a mountain of confetti.
It was a fitting end to a suitably spectacular 2 hour plus show – much may have changed in rock over the last 40 years, and with May and Taylor both now 70 their time as a touring act is finite, but Queen’s mix of theatricality, high camp and memorably written and performed songs mean that nobody does these large-scale shows better.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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