Whatever percentage Sir Brian May is paid on the current Queen + Adam Lambert tour needs to be doubled. In the first of a two-night show at the United Center, which sold out Monday, the band’s original guitarist performed the 130-minute concert, commanding the stage with a combination of virtuoso musicianship and unflappable presence at odds with the surrounding show.
To his credit, lead singer Lambert understood May’s importance in the moment. The flamboyant vocalist won the night with her colorful outfit, but left the spotlight, the runway and the center stage to the 76-year-old legend. May featured Queen’s songs. In a possible nod to his second career as an astrophysicist, he seemed determined to take music to a distant universe; this passion was highlighted by an intergalactic-themed sequence that found him perched atop a hydraulic riser at the center of 16 illuminated planetary spheres.
In fact, May’s uncluttered game wasn’t always out-of-this-Earth. It’s certainly not his trademark guitar tones – at once clean and distorted, choral and direct, lyrical and driven, smooth and crunchy, warm and sustaining – or the technical blend of finesse, power and economy. Nor his energy. He delivered not one but two extended solos, giving his colleagues a healthy respite through an unaccompanied mini-set and requiring no assistance from a second guitarist.
Her stellar performances almost made up for a few odd decisions that caused disorganization and a slump in momentum past the show’s midpoint from which Queen and her crew never fully recovered. As for filling the void left by Freddie Mercury? Lambert succeeded by being himself, not a cheap copy of the original pack leader, and using on-point fielding and superior control to his advantage.
Although it may be hard for older fans to believe, two generations have passed since Queen last toured with Mercury in 1986. The band’s last US concerts with the singer date back to the summer of 1982. Given the gap, many young fans’ visual impressions of Mercury’s story are likely linked not to the real person but to a replicant in the form of Rami Malek, star of the popular 2018 biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The actor went to great lengths to copy Mercury’s moves during Queen’s appearance at Live Aid in 1985.
Six years later, Mercury would die at the age of 45, succumbing to complications of AIDS, one day after publicly announcing that he had contracted the disease. The band went into hibernation, with the remaining members performing at a few tribute/charity events, finishing a studio album (“Made in Heaven”), and pursuing solo projects. Bassist John Deacon retired in 1997 and never looked back.
May and drummer Roger Taylor reunited in 2004 to tour with former Bad Company and Free vocalist Paul Rodgers as Queen + Paul Rodgers. The collaboration proved largely a mismatch. In my Tribune review of a lackluster show at the Allstate Arena in March 2006, I noted: “Rodgers came up short again and again, his bluesy pipes unable to consistently stretch the notes over the music.”
May and Taylor performed with Lambert on the season finale of “American Idol” in 2009, shortly after they ended their partnership with Rodgers. The event began a relationship that lasted more than a decade (surprisingly, longer than the entire time the original Queen spent performing in North America) and spawned multiple tours. The current outing may be the most daring outing, with May and Taylor backed by a keyboardist, bassist and percussionist with vocal talents.
Pyrotechnic explosions, confetti cannons, flashing lights, ceiling-scraping lasers, mobile screens, movie studio lights, dry ice fog, falling leaves, a disco ball, a wraparound projection screen; no device was this extravagant. And they all paled in comparison to Lambert’s flashy outfits. Wearing a variety of platform heels, the height of which referenced Kiss’ iconic ’70s designs, Lambert walked through costumes adorned with capes, breastplates, leather, glitter, sequins, statement necklaces and elbow-length gloves.
He enjoyed the theatrical parade and noted quirkiness in much of the group’s material. Lambert amped up the appeal of “Killer Queen” by sitting in front of a makeup mirror stand and looking directly into the camera as she prepped, perfumed and powdered her face while muttering the lyrics. In “Bicycle Race,” the blonde singer sat atop a motorcycle adorned with dazzling chrome and countless lights.
Lambert, who was introduced in May as “a gift from God”, said little and tried to focus on the songs. Fulfilling her declaration of celebrating Mercury, she avoided exaggerations and rarely sang excessively. Equipped with a generous range and a compelling style, Lambert was most attuned to his elders on majestic ballads (“The Show Must Go On,” “Who Wants to Live Forever”) and bracing, mid-tempo songs (“Somebody to Love,” ” . Don’t Stop Me Now”).
Sometimes, as on “Fat Bottomed Girls,” Lambert found herself in a middle ground between singing and reciting lyrics. A slowed down and stripped down “Tie Your Mother Up” also lacked the requisite swagger and mischievousness. Similar to other classics – the most recent song performed by Queen and Lambert was from 1991 – minor changes contradicted the versions that have stuck in memory and gone down in history. This helps explain why nostalgia can be a difficult and double-edged exercise.
Enter Mercury, or at least projected live images of him singing and holding court in front of a crowd all those years ago. May resorted to this ill-advised virtual trick while trying to complete “Love of My Life” without her colleagues. Despite all good intentions, such actions reek of cheating and serve as reminders of what (or who) is missing and why exactly they can’t be replaced or recreated.
After her “duet” with Mercury in May, Queen struggled with the tempo. Taylor re-emerged for a brief drum solo, leading to the oddly nimble “Under Pressure.” A few songs later, the liberating vibe of “I Want to Be Free” was still fresh, and it seemed like everyone but May needed some more rest. Instead of listening to the guitarist’s thrilling passages and spacey ambiances, Queen enlisted May and Lambert in the acoustic “Is This the World We Created…?” sent for and withdrew. As for the explosive part of “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Tame Lambert failed to convey defiance and desperation.
Do not worry. May again came to the rescue with intense riffs and treble-soaked leads that echoed like thunder and sparkled like lightning strikes. Some kind of magic? Maybe.
Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.
United Center’s set list for October 30:
“Machines (or ‘Return to Men’)” became “Radio Ga Ga”
“Hammer to Fall”
“Another One Bites the Dust”
“I’m in love with my car”
“Fat Bottomed Girls”
“I want it all”
“Some kind of magic”
“Don’t Stop Me Anymore”
“Somebody to Love”
“Love of my life”
“Tie your mother”
“Crazy little thing called love”
“I want to be free”
“Who wants to live forever”
“Is This the World We Created…?”
“The show must go on”
“We will Rock You”
“Radio Ga Ga” (repeat)
“We are the champions”