Adam Lambert is a very brave man. Replacing Freddie Mercury in Queen is challenge such that only two men so far have attempted it; Paul Rodgers managed only a couple of years, but Lambert, who also clearly appreciates what a very lucky man he is, has been touring with Brian May and Roger Taylor, the act billed as Queen + Adam Lambert.
This billing isn’t entirely fair, though. While, just as Paul Rodgers before him wasn’t, Lambert is not intended to replace Freddie Mercury — let’s be fair here: who possibly could? — but instead takes what would be, for a lesser singer, would be impossible. What Lambert does quite brilliantly is to be his own man, singing a catalogue of timeless classic-rock songs in his own, distinct voice.
Which is why he was wise, half an hour into last night’s show at Auckland’s Spark Arena, to address the Freddie Question head-on. “I’m no Freddie,” he quite freely admitted. But he didn’t need to be; a Queen + Adam Lambert show works so much better because he makes no attempt to be. Instead, he’s very much his own man, and at the same time very much an integral part of the band. You can badge it as “them plus him;” the truth is that he has become very much a member of Queen. It’s quite clear that May and Taylor trust him with their songs, and with good reason.
The set opened with a teaser of We Will Rock You; by the time May was walking down the runway into the middle of a sold-out arena, working into the opening riff to Tie Your Mother Down — The Times was right; it is “sheer bloody poetry” — it was clear that Lambert is, if not a replacement for Mercury, than a superb choice to be Queen’s new singer and frontman. The band worked through a predictable — and all the more enjoyable for it — run of Queen classics, from Killer Queen to Hammer To Fall via Bicycle Race, Lambert’s high camp gelling with May’s classic-rock guitar heroics, the tone produced by a sixpence on his homemade Red Special guitar unique and unmistakeable.
By the time May, Taylor and Lambert took position at the end of the runway, with Taylor seated behind a smaller kit than the full-sized array at the back of the stage, the audience was theirs, and the more intimate setting lent itself perfectly to songs like Crazy Little Thing Called Love. May then took over for a while, playing a solo, acoustic Love Of My Life which concluded with footage of Mercury, vocals dovetailing with May’s 12-string guitar work.
It’s clear that Queen need Lambert just as much as he needs them. When I’ve seen him perform as a solo act, he’s been a highly adequate, but ultimately uninspiring, performer, and it’s only when his setlist reaches the classics he’s borrowed from, well, the likes of Queen that his show comes alive, and while it’s fair enough that he gets one song of his own in this show, perhaps performing the Pink composition Whataya Want From Me wasn’t the ideal choice, and it simply felt out of place in a Queen set. Similarly, Roger Taylor is an innovative and versatile drummer, but he’s not a singer, and while he did write A Kind Of Magic, he might want to consider staying behind his kit in future and letting Lambert take the vocals. I’m In Love With My Car is entirely Taylor’s song, on the other hand, which he sings while playing drums, looking like a combination of Richard Attenborough, your granddad and a man who’s concerned his next heart attack might be on its way. Brian May, clearly the heart of the band now that Mercury is no longer there to front them on stage, took a solo that was perhaps a smidge more self-indulgent than might have been ideal; when he stood atop a riser, absurd hairdo backlit, shredding quite shreddily, it felt as though, for a moment, dinosaurs again walked the earth.
Next up was Radio Ga Ga, the singalong it was always going to be, Lambert again front and centre and clearly having as much fun as Taylor and May obviously were, and that the audience were, apparently without exception, sharing. And then came Bohemian Rhapsody. On the face of it, this song has no business working as well as it does. An objectively absurd conceit of a song, it is so utterly bizarre and compelling that it has a unique and entirely deserved place in rock history. It’s also, perhaps more than any other in the Queen canon, Freddie’s song, and one that cannot be easy to stage. After a recording of the original four members of the band singing the intro, Lambert, then, took the vocals to the opening verses alone; this, more than any other moment in the show, is testament to the courage and confidence of the man, none of it misplaced. For the cod-operatic Scaramouche-Fandango segment the original, groundbreaking 1975 video played on a screen behind the stage, and then May ripped into the “So you think…” rock portion, Lambert returning to sing the song out. And it was triumphant — as Lambert had said earlier, nobody could replace Freddie, so he wasn’t going to try, and Bohemian Rhapsody is, by its very nature, not a song that can easily be played live, and the reading that Queen played last night did justice to the song in a way that at once showcased Lambert and paid tribute to Mercury.
The encore opened with video of Mercury singing a call-and-response bit with a 1980s audience, and then percussionist Tyler Warren started to punch out the bang-bang-clap of We Will Rock You, which gave May his highlight of the evening — the song has as its ending perhaps the finest solo he has recorded, and it was as thrilling live as ever it was on vinyl. A trot through We Are The Champions, and the Night At The Opera reading of God Save The Queen as the band took well-earned bows, and the show was over.
And what a show it had been. Lambert is a fantastic front-man, given the right band and the right songs to sing; Queen have an astonishing range of material in their catalogue, and need the right singer to front their shows. Queen + Adam Lambert is, then, an inspired combination, and last night’s show was a magnificent performance.
They are playing again tonight, Sunday 18th February, at Auckland’s Spark Arena. If you’re lucky, there might still be tickets available; if you’ve any sense, you’ll get yourself one now and go. You’ll be very, very glad you did.