He’s a lucky man, is Adam Lambert. A runner-up in a telly talent show, he’s now fronting one of the biggest stadium shows in the world. And that quite astonishing climb is, well, somewhat deserved, and last night’s Queen + Adam Lambert show at Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland showed what he’s capable of.
Lambert does, to be fair, make it quite clear that he’s not Freddie Mercury. And he’s right. He really, really isn’t. He’s an amazing singer; of this there is little doubt. While Paul Rodgers, one of Lambert’s predecessors in the “Queen +” billing (of which more shortly), had the rough power, and George Michael, another tantalising but even shorter-lived collaboration, knew how to sing the songs that Rodgers was a little too muscular for, Lambert’s gift is a range—in character, not just in pitch—that matches Queen’s famously, gloriously catholic catalogue of unforgettable songs.
And what songs they are. Few bands have setlists as extraordinarily diverse as Queen’s, and Lambert is able to do justice to a riff-laden stomp like Fat Bottomed Girls or a disappointingly truncated Tie Your Mother Down (The Times was, of course, right: it remains sheer bloody poetry, and really needs a full airing), the camp theatricality of Killer Queen, or the pure stadium-rock power-balladry of, say, You Take My Breath Away. And, of course—and having Brian May and Roger Taylor behind you must boost ones confidence, mind—he has the courage, not at all misplaced, to tackle Bohemian Rhapsody, a song perhaps more singular and more tightly tied up in the memory of its late singer than any other.
May and Taylor, obviously, are the backbone of the band. May, at 72, remains one of the most extraordinarily talented and recognisable guitarists in rock. Most of the night’s music is driven by May’s Red Special, its three pickups driving the half-dozen Vox cabinets next to Taylor’s kit into May’s signature fedback squeal. The hair, bigger than ever, is now greyer than ever, but May still plays like a young man, and, to judge from the way he talks to his audience like they’re his best friend, he seems to still genuinely enjoy playing songs that he’s been performing for his entire adult life. His voice is fine, too, Love Of My Life a strong enough song that May, alone on a stool at the end of the runway with his 12-string acoustic, can fill a stadium with it. Taylor, despite giving off just a little granddad-who’s-glad-the-cool-kids-let-him-play-with-them energy, is also still playing, and singing, well; his vocals on Under Pressure were, perhaps treasonous though it may be to say, even better than David Bowie’s original 1981 vocal performance. He even manages to make I’m In Love With My Car, surely the worst-named song in the Queen repertoire and certainly a song his bandmates rightly looked sideways at when he first offered it to them, actually quite vital and powerful.
But here’s the thing. Lambert is a fantastic singer; May and Taylor wouldn’t have shoulder-tapped him to front Queen otherwise. What he’s not, sadly, is as charismatic a frontman as Mercury. That would be a tough ask, mind; Mercury was one of rock’s great showman (if you don’t believe me, watch Queen make Live Aid their very own, then we’ll talk), but Lambert, on the other hand, very definitely isn’t. His solo shows were weak; while he can sing, he lacks the ability to engage with an audience as effortlessly as Mercury or, indeed, May, who spoke to the crowd significantly more than Lambert. And Lambert is oddly inert on stage; there’s the occasional boogie, the odd skip, but largely it’s shapes being thrown, knowing looks, but Lambert’s voice is what drives his performance, little else.
So it’s an odd show, and this is reflected in the billing. They’re not simply “Queen;” the show is billed as “Queen + Adam Lambert.” On the one hand, Lambert’s name is front and centre, and it must surely help to attract a segment of the audience who might not otherwise want to listen to pensioner music. But it also serves to other him; there were two different acts sharing the stage at Mount Smart Stadium last night, and while for the most part they gelled well together, there are moments when Lambert is reminded that he’s filling dead man’s shoes. It’s inescapable, of course, that Bohemian Rhapsody is Mercury’s song, but Mercury is sill a presence, from sharing the intro to BoRap to, still, goading his audience, on video from the grave, with his “Ay-oh” call-and-response, in other parts of the show. But Mercury is frozen in aspic, forever the young man who was taken from us far too early. And for all it’s easy to snipe at Adam Lambert for not being Mercury, he’s onto a hiding to nothing—try to be Mercury and he’ll fail, and be pilloried in the process for even trying, or try to be his own man and be similarly slated for, well, not being Freddie enough. So what he does is bring his own energy, his own style, to Queen’s music. He’s got the range, as we’ve said, and he embraces the camp absurdity of nonsenses is like Bicycle Race with the same ease he brings to joyously classic numbers like Crazy Little Thing Called Love.
And that, right there, is what made, for all the criticisms and quibbles and caveats that are inescapable, last night’s show as compelling as it was. It’s all about the songs, and few bands in the world, few bands ever, have produced wonderful, marvellous songs of such remarkable creativity and breathtaking scope. And while John Deacon has stepped back completely from Queen activities, his basslines on classics like Another One Bites The Dust picked up by manc Neil Fairclough, May and Taylor are the custodians of more of the great songs of rock history than any two musicians should have any right to, and they’ve found, in Lambert, someone who can re-vitalise them and make them live again.
Yes, Adam Lambert is a lucky man. He’s also a very brave one. But his stepping into Mercury’s shoes means that we get to sing We Are The Champions again, stomp-stomp-clap along to We Will Rock You until Brian May rips into his signature guitar break, we get to fail miserably, but enjoy ourselves ridiculously in the process, at the impossibly complex opera bit of Bohemian Rhapsody, one more time. God save the Queen.