Queen + Adam Lambert @ Metricon Stadium, 29.02.2020
I promised myself I would never do this. Never, ever. I just had no interest. Absolutely none. And it wasn’t just that, it was more. There was always something unsavoury about the whole thing. Why did I feel like this? Queen were the band of my youth, from start to finish, from 1980s Flash soundtrack (I was 8) all the way through to 1991’s Innuendo (I was 19). By the time Freddie Mercury died, they had been an ever present through almost half my life. The first album I ever bought, Now That’s What I Call Music 3, had a Queen song on it (‘I Want To Break Free’). When my record collection was in its infancy and numbered less than 20 albums, at least one of those was by Queen (Greatest Hits, £5.49 from WH Smith’s in Exmouth) and there might have also been a second (1986’s A Kind Of Magic, about the same price, probably bought from the same place). I don’t think Queen were ever considered ‘cool’, but I loved them. The thought of two quarters of the band reforming without their greatest asset, and then replacing their talisman frontman with an ex American Idol contestant? It just sounded like a terrible idea.
Freddie Mercury’s dying was my first celebrity death, at last the first major and unexpected one. I was devastated and it affected me like no other celebrity death since. From the announcement in the Sunday papers that he had AIDS to the Monday morning news that he had died, it was a lot to take in. I just ended up spending the day in bed in mourning, listening to the radio playing back-to-back Queen songs and tributes.
It just wasn’t Freddie Mercury’s obvious absence that put me off wanting to see them.
The genius of Queen is that they were more than the sum of their individual parts but also that each one of them was important and played their part. He might have been stood at the back near the drum kit and kept his head down, but bassist John Deacon gave the band the likes of ‘I Want To Break Free’ ‘Another One Bites The Dust’, and ‘You’re My Best Friend’. Even without him, it just wouldn’t be the same. He might have retired from the band but I hope that each time the other two decide to tour that that they invite him, even if it’s just out of courtesy, even if he turns them down each and every time or doesn’t even bother to reply, I’d love to think that they ask him. I don’t think they do though, but it would be nice to think they did.
The whole Queen reformation sounded appalling, I couldn’t even contemplate it. And yet here I am, so what changed?
I changed. I got older, more sentimental, more nostalgic. You realise it’s better to do things and regret them rather than not do them at all and always wonder if you made the right decision. You say “Yes” because it’s better than living in regret. Even if an experience is the absolute worst, you have that knowledge, you have the story to tell, you know not to make the same mistake twice or perhaps a third time if you’ve given some benefit of the .
I’m lucky enough to have seen so many of the guitarists whose playing I’ve loved but I’ve never seen Brian May play. He’s one of the few guitarists I’ve loved forever but never seen and that feels like another good reason. You reach an age when you realise that you’re running out of chances to see some of these older bands. Although I’d seen them before, I’m still gutted about missing the Gang of Four show in Brisbane back in Brisbane as I’ll never get another chance to watch Andy Gill play. This is fresh in my mind when I’m thinking about relenting.
There’s also the songs they’ve played in these shows over recent years. Looking through these setlists has been a mix of pleasant surprise and pangs of jealousy and regret at having not been interested. As with every band with as many hit songs, there’s a number of songs that just couldn’t be omitted from the setlist but there’s also been some really unexpected songs that the band have selected to play: fairly obscure songs from albums in their early days that weren’t even that popular.
And so I decide to abandon my self-imposed ban and make a Saturday evening trip out of Brisbane and down to the Gold Coast to see Queen + Adam Lambert at Metricon Stadium. It’s the second sold out stadium show the band have played in Queensland in a little over two weeks. Last time the band played here, back in September 2014, it was a single night at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre. What a difference a hit biopic and some Oscar awards can make.
So here we are on the Gold Coast, hoping for the best, prepared for the worst.
There’s someone undeniably cruel about blasting out the opening notes to ‘Innuendo’ before it becomes obvious that this is just a backing track introduction and not the way that the band are going to announce themselves. Starting with dark brooding ‘Innuendo’ would have been an epic statement but instead the curtain raises to Brian May, Roger Taylor and the band launching into the more obvious opener of ‘Now I’m Here’, as Adam Lambert makes his descent down the stairs leading down from behind the drum kit.
Lambert doesn’t sound like Mercury but it’s not an issue of good or bad, better or worse, it’s just different. It is a voice that does suit the songs and you can’t really fault it, especially when the vocal harmonies provided by the rest of the band sound as good as ever. It was always the harmonies that gave Queen that distinct sound, probably more so than the individual voice of their lead singer, regardless of how good that was.
A medley of ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ and ‘Keep Keep Yourself Alive’ flashes by and is followed by a typically immense live version of ‘Hammer to Fall’. A trio of the band’s greatest and most loved hits comes early in the set with ‘Killer Queen’, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and ‘Somebody To Love’.
In terms of personnel, the six piece band is only one member more than the classic 1980s live version of the group, an additional percussionist (presumably to help do some of the heavy lifting for 70 yr old Roger Taylor, as well as help fill out the sound and provide an extra singing voice); keyboardist Spike Edney has played with the band since 1984. There might only be six musicians on stage but the sound is massive, it sounds like there’s at least twice as many people playing. Stadiums shows have a well earned and deserved reputation for terrible sound, so it’s surprising just how good the sound is at Metricon Stadium. From front to back, it’s loud and clear; it’s really stunning and totally unexpected.
The band launch into ‘In the Lap of the Gods… Revisited’ and everyone sits down. They keep their seats for Roger Taylor’s ‘I’m in Love With My Car’: a song I used to despise but which has grown on my down the years. As good a singer as Freddie Mercury was, Taylor providing all the falsetto vocals on all those vocal harmonies made him Queen’s secret weapon. A Night At The Opera is generally considered Queen’s most classic album, although I’d argue that it should be its predecessor, Sheer Heart Attack. I’d also argue that Queen were a better singles band than an album band; every album has its share of classic songs but almost every album also has more than its fair share of filler material. That these two songs, from two of the band’s best albums, get the reaction they do shows that the majority of the audience know the band best from its hit singles. I’m slightly envious knowing that there’s so much more for them to discover, if they choose to.
Roger Taylor taking lead vocals means there’s time for Lambert to leave the stage for a quick costume change. When he reappears, it’s through the floor of the walkway, dressed up in diamanté studded biker gear, astride a massive Harley Davidson. It’s such a ridiculous sight, you can’t be not impressed. The only disappointment is that he doesn’t ride it up and down the walkway, instead it just gently rotates on the spot as Lambert blasts out the obvious reason for the prop, ‘Bicycle Race’.
It’s a symbiotic relationship between Queen’s two gatekeepers and their lead singer although it’s hard to say who needs who the most. Being in Queen gives Lambert ‘fame and fortune and everything that goes with it’ on top of his own solo career but May and Taylor need someone to come in and do the band, their songs, and their legacy justice. It didn’t work when they recruited ex-Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers in the mid-2000s. Despite being one of the great rock voices in his time, his vocals didn’t suit and he was never the showman to replace Mercury.
The more you watch Lambert, the more you appreciate him. If Freddie Mercury isn’t available, where do you go? Lambert ticks of many of the boxes you would need in anyone stepping into Mercury’s shoes. It’s clear he’s enough of his own person to make it work in a way that’s not just turning the band into a tribute act. Although George Michael did justice to the songs he sung at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, it’s hard to think of many that could step into the band. Lambert may engage in too much Gene Simmons-style tongue waggling and Michael Jackson-evoking crotch grabbing, but these are minor quibbles. What is most impressive is watching the in5 and between song interactions between Lambert and his two bandmates.
The action moves down to the end of the walkway, first for a Brian May solo acoustic spot and then, with a drum kit appearing through the walkway, for Roger Taylor to change locations for a run through of ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ before taking on the David Bowie vocals in ‘Under Pressure’. It’s fascinating watching the interplay between Taylor and Lambert at close quarters during the song; the eye contact, the knowing nods, the non-verbal communication between them is utterly mesmerising . There’s a similar moment towards the end of the night, when May and Lambert are walking back along the walkway towards the main stage, laughing and joking with each other, radiating such clear positive body language between them. May and Taylor have total faith and trust in their singer to deliver and know how good the band is with him in it.
There’s solos from all the band; Taylor delivers his from what most drummers would consider the embarrassingly basic kit that’s set up on the walkway. May gets the full stage production treatment for his, rising above the stage and with the graphics giving the appearance of him performing atop an asteroid, as other heavenly bodies spin past him. Whereas most guitar solos are a frenzy of notes, May choses a minimal approach, focusing on sustain and glissando, dropping in parts of Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’ before teasing with some of Sheer Heart Attack’s opener, ‘Brighton Rock’. It would have been better if they had just played the whole song, it’s one of the band’s best. He keeps looking behind him as if waiting for the band to re-appear and it’s hard to tell whether this is this a-last-night-of-the-tour joke on him, making him keep going long after he thought he would have stopped.
Similarly, Spike Edney’s moment in the spotlight is based on Mercury’s piano introduction to A Night At The Opera’s opening track, ‘Death On Two Legs’, which again would have been a pleasant surprise to have heard in full.
50s rock ‘n’ roll has been a long term inclusion in Queen’s setlists, making ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ understandable, but Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ less so. A couple more of Queen’s own songs would have been preferable, although an unexpected performance of The Game’s ‘Dragon Attack has the majority of the crowd re-familiarising themselves with their seats.
‘I Want To Break Free’ reinforces that John Deacon has become Queen’s forgotten man. He doesn’t warrant a single mention the entire night.
By the time the band have played A Kind of Magic’s ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’ and Innuendo’s ‘The Show Must Go On’, they’ve managed to include songs from 13 different albums. Only the Flash soundtrack and 1995’s posthumous Made In Heaven aren’t represented in a stunning setlist of hit after hit. The main set rounds out with ‘Radio Ga Ga’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, which culls the operatic middle from the song’s video clip and shows it on the big screens across the stage for a mass singalong. Throughout the show, the stage design has always impressed. Screens that can be screens showing video clips in a moment suddenly becoming transparent and becoming huge lighting rigs. Sometimes the production is subtle but it’s clearly been well thought out and it does justice to the scale of the venue.
There is a strange dichotomy taking place between the missing Freddie Mercury and the not missing Freddie Mercury. Ultimately this is testament to what Adam Lambert brings to the band. You can’t hear these songs without thinking about Mercury and yet everything works and in the moment, in each moment, you’re enjoying what you’re seeing and hearing, not missing Mercury, enjoying watching Lambert perform. And then you’re suddenly thinking about Mercury again. Some of this is because the production provides the reminders throughout the show, sometimes through verbal mentions and tributes, sometimes through video clips playing on the big screens above the stage. Mercury appears to duet with May at the end of ‘Love Of My Life’ and he’s there again at the start of the encore, to provide what’s come to be titled ‘Ay Oh’, the audience singalong interaction. What’s most devastating about these clips is that at the end of each, Mercury turns away from the camera, away from the audience, his adoring audience, and the screen slowly fades to black.
If Mercury was still alive, he’d be 74 and you would have to question whether his voice would have stood up with age and cigarettes and whether, as a septuagenarian, he’s still be able to strut the stage as he did in his prime. It’s interesting to consider that Lambert is the same age as Mercury was when Queen played at Live Aid and not far short of how old he was when the band played their last shows in 1986. By bringing in the younger singer, they’ve maintained the vitality of the live performance.
I was cynical, I was skeptical, I was wrong. Tonight is one of those rare occurrences, the oxymoron that is an amazing stadium show. It’s helped a lot by just how good the sound is, it’s easily the best stadium show sound I’ve ever encountered. If you’re making a principled stand and holding out, the same as I did, thinking it’ll do a disservice to on the the great live bands, you really need to reconsider. That a band can pull it off with only half of their original line-up does make you think what they would have been like in their pomp, in their prime, but this is still a first rate performance. During the 1970s and 1980s, Queen were always regarded as the definitive big crowd band, whether that be Live Aid, Knebworth, the legendary South America shows you’d hear about or any of the other massive shows they played across the world. In 2020, Queen + Adam Lambert show that the band is still one of the great live bands.