[The Mail On Sunday, 2005]
London Brixton Academy
“CAN YOU BELIEVE,” says Brian May, “that we're doing this?”
He's speaking to the faithful - the “family”, as he goes on to identify the audience, with wearing inevitability; but as an open question to the rest of us, it merits asking. Can we believe that he and Roger Taylor have joined up with former Free and Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers to visit Queenery upon innocent bystanders once more? We'd better believe it. As a going concern, Queen were inescapable, and surely will be again. Had Death and taxes spared Benjamin Franklin into the 1980s, he'd have listed Queen alongside them.
Although involuntarily exposure to Queen has caused me a fair deal of torment over the years, I'll admit you'd need to be some kind of slug never to have been entertained by them. Their varied career turned up all manner of odd pleasures amid the slag-heaps of bombast and pomp. As one of the very few non-Queen fans at their comeback tour's opening date, I draw some hope from this.
At the climax of the longest and most portentous musical build-up in concert history (an unfortunate woman nearby has held her camera aloft in anticipation for fully thirty minutes before succumbing to cramp), the spotlight uncovers a wee, stocky, bearded chap wedged bratwurst-fashion into a pair of leather trews. This is Paul Rodgers. He launches, a cappella, into the syrupy Reaching Out. Then something very loud happens and Tie Your Mother Down bursts from the stage. And it's good.
It can't last. Before long, the emblematically lumpen I Want To Break Free is chugging and blaring through its soul-sapping course. “Any fat bottomed girls here tonight?” grins May. If ever there were a show at which that's a safe bet...
The song he's alluding to is more crass than funny (Spinal Tap's Big Bottom is better by far), but at least it's intended to be comical. Rodger's own Seagull presents its po-faced cod-philosophy in a lyric so risibly banal - “Now you fly/Through the sky/Never asking why” - it could have been written by Tap themselves, or even Noel Gallagher.
Rodgers does deserve some credit for taking on this job at all. He's got the voice for it. Close your eyes and he doesn't sound out of place. But open them again and the contrast is startling. It's a bit like asking Timothy Spall to assume Christopher Reeve's most famous role, on the grounds that he's an able actor. The phrase “hiding to nothing” comes to mind.
By joining up with Rodgers, Queen have partly dodged the issue of replacing Freddie Mercury. They've got another singer, but not another focal point. May comes closest to filling that role, but in truth this is a show without a showman. It has the feel of those “a tribute to” events, shuffling and shifting, without a hook on which to hang its cap.
May takes two solo turns. The protracted guitar histrionics are to be expected and endured. But his acoustic run-through of '39 is a pleasant surprise. Along with Love of My Life, and Taylor's exhilarating I'm In Love With My Car, it's a reminder of how A Night At The Opera so nearly succeeded in its self-conscious emulation of Abbey Road, only for these engaging snippets to be flattened by the lumbering behemoth that is Bohemian Rhapsody.
Unsurprisingly, the vocal for Queen's signature tune is provided by an on-screen Mercury; towards the end, with steamroller symbolism, Rodgers takes over. The band then performs The Show Must Go On. When it comes to labouring a point - or indeed, just labouring - Queen have few rivals. And they've recruited one of them. Rodgers leads the ensemble on Bad Company's Feel Like Making Love, a song as erotic as the rattle of a pipe fitter's toolbag, and Free's All Right Now, the quintessence of graceless blues-rock.
There's something about these numbers that evokes being trapped beneath a large weight in a small room. The same goes for I Want It All and We Are The Champions, the My Way of stadium rock. The best to be said for them is that they cast a flattering light on Radio Ga Ga. I don't know whether to be touched or embarrassed by it, but then I never did. It's at once heartfelt and unbearably hokey. And that's the measure of this show. It's Queen as I remember them: nuggets of charm, hidden in mounds of choking dross.
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