"Where are my fat-ass bitches at?"
Adam Lambert shouts this with cheeky glee as the band finishes playing "Fat Bottom Girls." His hair dyed Kool-Aid red, he's wearing a getup that looks like a mashup of Faith-era George Michael and Bono from the Zoo TV tour — huge shades, big earrings, fingerless gloves, and an American flag vest. It's the first of many ensembles he'd wear throughout the evening. The cherry-headed singer had more costume changes than a Broadway star.
Queen + Adam Lambert were only a few songs into their show at Gila River Arena, and the crowd was already whipped into a frenzy. Every song inspired a singalong, and the crowd didn't hesitate to hoot and applaud Lambert and guitarist Brian May whenever they sauntered down the raised long walkway that cut through the middle of the arena floor.
I was hooting right alongside them.
Truth be told: I had my doubts about this show. The whole idea of bands carrying on after essential members die out always struck me as a bad idea. Nine times out of 10, they end up being embarrassing cash grabs that tarnish a band's legacy (cases in point: the Ian Astbury-fronted Doors and the unspeakable horror that is Sublime with Rome). And with a band like Queen, they're faced with the nigh-impossible task of replacing one of the greatest frontmen in musical history.
To give May, Roger Taylor, and the rest of the players onstage some credit: They went out of their way to pay their respects to Freddie throughout the night. Halfway through the show, Lambert strolled to the front of the walkway and talked to the audience. Illuminated by a spotlight, he confessed that nobody could replace a talent as enormous as Mercury's, and said that he felt like he was just a fan who had the honor and privilege to get to sing with one of his favorite bands.
It was a deeply humanizing moment for Lambert and the band, and a great way to build empathy with the audience. For a moment, Lambert wasn't an American Idol or pop star or "I Can't Believe It's Not Freddie Mercury" substitute. He was just one of us. He was living the ultimate fan dream, getting to hang out and play with his favorite band.
What also helped wash away whatever lingering doubts I had about the show was the sheer enthusiasm of the band itself.
They played each song with crisp and forceful precision. The sound mix was great. Lambert's vocals, May's guitar, and Roger Taylor's drumming were crystal clear. The only thing that was lacking in the sound department was that the backing vocals were low and hard to make out. The band's larger-than-life harmonies are one of their most distinctive qualities — it was a bummer not getting to hear them pop the way they should live.
Speaking of May, the venerable guitarist looked like he was having a blast onstage, shredding his parts and grinning all the while. At one point, while the rest of the band was setting up in the dark, May took out a selfie stick and posed for shots with the entire crowd. He also had a moment where he paid tribute to Freddie. Playing a solo acoustic rendition of "Love Of My Life," a video clip of Freddie singing the song appeared on an overhead screen. With May on the left side of the stage and the spectral Mercury singing on the right, it looked like they were performing together again.
While the effect was a little goofy (with May and video clip Freddie waving and nodding at each other), it was also touching. The crowd could see May brushing away tears afterwards.
Bringing Freddie back from the dead wasn't the only bit of video trickery on display at the show. Queen put together a pretty dynamic video show to add some visual flair to their set. When the show began, they had a projection of a steel wall onstage with something pounding behind it, making a noise that built in intensity. Eventually, the wall got torn apart by the giant robot from the cover of News of the World. His huge metal hand stretched out over the stage in one of the most impressive 3D projections I've ever seen. His hand looked like it was actually there. I was expecting it to slam down and pancake Taylor's drum kit.
Each song had a different projection on the overhead screens."We Will Rock You" opened the show with more images of the giant robot; "Another One Bites The Dust" featured an EKG line that bumped and spiked in time to that song's classic bass line; and "Stone Cold Crazy" shot out bolts of lightning that electrified the band as they played. And occasionally, set pieces would pop up, like when the robot's giant head rose from the floor to reveal Lambert perched on top of it, singing "Killer Queen" to a packed arena shouting "DYNAMITE WITH A LASER BEAM" back at him.
It was interesting to see how good a job Lambert did as Queen's frontman. He was like the lead actor in a theatrical revival. But instead of playing Hamlet or Hedwig, he was playing Freddie Mercury. His vocal chops were certainly up to snuff. While his voice lacked some of the grit that Freddie had (the way Mercury could still sound tough and macho even when he was being fey and operatic at the same time), he could hit those high notes and did an excellent job being the world's best Queen karaoke singer.
Lambert also had a refreshingly catty stage presence. When he wasn't fanboying out onstage, he was dropping bratty bon mots like the aforementioned "fat-ass bitches" and jerking off his mic stand.
The only real area where Lambert fell short was charisma. He was charming and fun to watch, but he was nowhere close to being as compelling to watch live as Freddie is in video clips. It's why actors trying to play rock stars and rock stars trying to fill the shoes of their idols are almost always doomed to fail. Those iconic musicians possess a unique charm, a force of personality, that can't be easily duplicated. That one-of-a-kind alchemy can't be bottled up and poured out again. It's why that new Tupac biopic sucked. It doesn't matter if you can find a guy who looks just like Pac because you'll never find a guy who could shine like Pac did. The same problem applies to Freddie Mercury.
But it's a problem that Queen + Adam Lambert were able to overcome by playing all the songs that people wanted to hear, and playing them with zest and energy. They didn't try to pretend they were something that they could never be again, and they mercifully spared us from having to listen to too much "new" music. (Lambert played his new single "Two Fux" for the crowd, and we all halfheartedly clapped along to it.)
And at the end of the day, it's hard to hold it against the band for wanting to keep playing. When you have a catalog of songs as incredible as Queen's, why would you ever want to retire? As fun as it was for us in the crowd to sing along to "Somebody To Love" and "Bohemian Rhapsody," imagine how much fun it must be to play those songs and think "Fuck yeah, we wrote this thing. Galileo Galileo Magnifico — that's our shit."
If I were them, I'd be playing "Don't Stop Me Now" until they nailed my coffin lid shut.
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Last Night: Queen + Adam Lambert at Gila River Arena in Glendale.
The Crowd: A vast sea of fanatical Queen fans. Age ranges were all over the place; I saw teeny goths, boomer golf dads, grandmas, and little kids milling around Gila River's curving hallways.
Overheard: "I just wanted to give you guys some head!" — Adam Lambert, after singing "Killer Queen" while sitting on top of a robot's giant head.
Random Notebook Dump: Man, Queen + Adam Lambert REALLY love that News of the World robot. It's all over the place — it's even emblazoned on the drums. It's like they're trying to brand it into their version of Iron Maiden's Eddie.