“They always deliver” – the words of concert promoter Harvey Goldsmith about Queen, at or around the time of the famous Wembley shows in 1986.
For anyone casually landing on this review of the Queen + Adam Lambert Rhapsody tour, let’s take that as a given. Queen deliver the goods – every time.
I love Queen. Let’s take that as another given. I have loved them ever since I was a ten-year-old – a lifetime ago. In fact, if you enjoy reading this little review, I recommend my blog Teenage tales of Queen via ten objects. It’s a collection of random-ish memories from my time growing up as a Queen fan in the late 70s.
Anyway, I could use the next 1,500 words or so to tell you how jaw-droppingly sublime the Queen + Adam Lambert show was in Manchester at the AO Arena on 30 May 2022 (six days ago, at time of uploading). But what’s the point? There are plenty of concert reviews and other Queen-related articles around that will do exactly that for you. In fact, here’s the Manchester Evening News review of the same show I attended.
My review offers, hopefully, a slightly different perspective – from, as I say, somehow who grew up with Queen, who worshipped them as a kid, and who – relevant for what we’re talking about here – saw them live several times from 1978 onwards.
But not someone who thinks either (a) that Queen have never ever put a foot wrong in their entire career or (b) the opposite extreme, that everything they have done since 1991 has been complete crap, a sell-out, a calamity, an outrage. No. I do think some of what they have done over the years has been a bit poo. I have never, for example, seen the We Will Rock You musical. Let’s call it the John Deacon analysis. But I still get butterflies in my stomach whenever I hear Brian’s guitar. For me, there’s no better sound in music.
I wrote this in my review of the film Bohemian Rhapsody:
It’s short-sighted to wax lyrical about every last Queen product — this replica sixpence, that T-shirt, this vodka, that board game. Some things are high quality and worthwhile; others are mediocre and a bit naff … Objectivity matters, even where ‘classic’ Queen is concerned and even more so in the case of post-Freddie and non-Queen projects.from my review of the Bohemian Rhapsody film
So, bearing all the above in mind, let’s press on with some things that really are outstanding about the Queen + Adam Lambert show.
Well, for starters, it looks great – the staging, the lights. And it sounds magnificent as well. The ‘band’ – by which I mean Tyler Warren (percussion), Neil Fairclough (bass) and Spike Edney (keyboards and longtime Queen collaborator) – are note-perfect. The whole production is, in short, highly polished and professional, as you would expect.
Gonna rock, gonna roll you
Get you dancing in the aisles
Jazz you, razzmatazz you
With a little bit of style
And of course it is highly theatrical – dramatic entrances, costume changes aplenty, an overarching ‘opera house’ theme – even Brian floating adrift among the planets. Best of all, a long catwalk down to the B stage in the centre of the venue, adding to the sense (always there at Queen gigs anyway) that the audience is an integral part of the show.
And there’s Adam Lambert too. Just to be clear, I am not there to see him – 95% of the time my attention is elsewhere – but his costumes dazzle, his vocal range is astounding, and he carries off the uber-camp, theatrical-showman element of Freddie’s stage persona with aplomb. Brian and Roger would not be putting on a show like this – and enjoying their current immense worldwide popularity – with Paul Rodgers on lead vocals, that’s for sure.
Oddly enough, it’s the hyperbole that annoys me as much as anything. ‘Odd’ because a certain swaggering arrogance has been there from the very beginning – as the band themselves always freely admitted, and in fact boasted about. Words like ‘modest’ and ‘unassuming’ simply aren’t part of the Queen lexicon. In these days of 24-hour publicity machines, it’s harder than ever to ignore, to the point where I find programme notes, press releases and the like all but unreadable: phrases like “one of modern music’s greatest success stories”, “enrapturing audiences”, “the phenomeneon [sic] that is Queen and Adam Lambert” – even when they are spelled correctly. [As a side note, £15 for a programme that is riddled with typos is just not good enough.]
The programme opens with this quote from Brian, from 2019:
Our previous tour featured our most ambitious production ever, so we decided to rip it apart and get even more ambitious.
Well, yes and no.
To my mind, the staging isn’t that radically different: if you have attended a concert on any of the recent tours, you will have a good idea of what it will look like. Ric Lipson, the set designer, is quoted as saying that the opera-boxes backdrop “means that there are members of the audience actually surrounding the band and bringing a new staging energy to the show.” Okay, except that the band have offered an on-stage – actually, side-of-the-stage – VIP experience before. I splashed out on it in 2017. I’m glad I did, but I wouldn’t do it again. It was immediately obvious – doh – that out front is the band’s focus, not the side of the stage – a point that surely applies even more to seats placed literally at the back.
And no surprises either for seeing it summed up as state of the art – a high bar indeed. If I were being picky I would say that some of the computerised back-projections were a bit lame and, though the on-stage pyrotechnics were good, Rush, to make one comparison, took fireworks to another level (I was sat in the same block for the Clockwork Angels show in 2013 and remember feeling the heat from the pyros).
It was – again, no surprises – the (many) nods to Queen’s history that I particularly enjoyed. Notwithstanding the comment above about pyros, I loved Brian’s fireworks during A Kind of Magic, which brought to mind the original 1986 video. The on-stage lighting, which swivels and moves independently, harks back to the ‘G2 razors’ used on the Game and Hot Space tours. As for more subtle nods, what about the tapping of the conductor’s baton to usher in the taped introduction: a throwback to the A Night at the Opera tour.
There’s a comment in the programme about how, with Lambert’s arrival, nothing was “off limits” song-wise – “from the biggest hits of all time to brilliant b-sides and album tracks”. Again, yes and no. Anyone familiar with Live Around the World, the Queen + Adam Lambert live album culled from shows between 2014 and 2020, will know more or less what’s coming.
Could it be otherwise? The band quickly dropped Spread Your Wings and It’s Late from the (News of the World fortieth anniversary) 2017 US tour because of a lack of audience recognition. Given that a Queen + Adam Lambert show is aimed squarely at a mass audience, young and old, many of them coming to the band with a limited knowledge of the Queen back catalogue, most of the setlist writes itself. They don’t play much that isn’t on either the original Greatest Hits album or Greatest Hits II.
Anyway, here are a few observations about the show itself:
After a (new) Innuendo taped intro, the show opens with four hard-rock songs delivered back-to-back. Deafen ‘em and blind ‘em, as the band used to say. I have written elsewhere that Tear It Up was an unlikely set opener on the Works tour. Even more surprising that it remained in the set for the Magic Tour. Yet more surprising that it was resurrected by Queen + Adam Lambert in 2018. And so even more surprising that it is still in the set.
I was never a huge fan of Killer Queen live – a bit too lightweight for my taste for a live show – but it’s too big and mainstream a song to leave out these days and it’s an opportunity for Lambert to camp it up. The weakest song by far is Bicycle Race. Again, it’s not one that worked for me live back in the day – it’s captured for posterity on Live Killers – and here the backing vocals don’t quite work. Anyway, they again dial up the camp theatrics and quickly segue to an always magnificent Fat Bottomed Girls.
Although they took a bit of getting used to, I have grown to like the post-‘86 songs they do (the ones they never performed live with Freddie): Lambert’s range does justice to The Show Must Go On, These Are the Days of Our Lives is great on the B stage (but can’t they dig up some ‘new’ old footage for the backdrop?!), and, best of the lot, I Want It All. Crikey, that song sounds huge.
Another feature of the Queen + Adam Lambert experience is how some of the songs have lost their rockier edge. I noticed it first, I think, with Don’t Stop Me Now, which opened the ‘Rock Big Ben Live’ TV concert on New Year’s Eve 2014. The Live Killers version is a bit heavier – mainly the middle “Don’t stop me, don’t stop me…” bit just before the solo. But it is most apparent with Somebody to Love: compare the 2022 iteration with (say) the performance at Milton Keynes in 1982, coincidentally 40 years ago to the day that I am writing this.
Tie Your Mother Down – one of those songs that, though not a big hit and so left off Greatest Hits, has been played so often over the years that it’s almost unthinkable to leave it out now – and Radio Ga Ga have been shortened through the omission of a verse or two. A shame, though it’s certainly not a catastrophe on the scale of the Live Magic album (ugh – just to write the name is to shudder), and it makes room for an extra song or two, I suppose.
And what’s not there? We’re not going to get early classics like White Queen, Liar or Keep Yourself Alive (although I did wonder about the latter, given it featured in the Bohemian Rhapsody film, a prime source of Queen ‘knowledge’ for millions of new fans around the world). Given one pick, I would give Save Me an airing instead of Who Wants to Live Forever. It was actually the bigger hit of the two, in Britain at any rate.
I’m glad that I’m in Love with My Car is still there. It was always Roger’s moment in the spotlight and, with the inclusion of the final verse and the long outro on recent tours, it’s never sounded better. Now, of course, Roger is also on vocal duties on the B stage for These Are the Days of Our Lives and Under Pressure. That apart, he doesn’t try anything too elaborate these days and he is more than ably supported by Tyler Warren on percussion.
And then there’s the one and only Brian May. The Doc long ago cemented his place in my affections as favourite band member. My friend Thomas (much younger than me and very much not a Queen fan), who attended the following night, said that he had wondered beforehand whether it would all be a giant Brian May ego-fest. Well, it isn’t that but, not a little ironically, Brian is certainly the focal point for much of what happens on and off stage these days.
His recent health problems are no secret, and yet he seems to have phenomenal energy for someone fast approaching 75. If he’s not rushing up and down the catwalk, he’s striding back to his mic to contribute some backing vocals, or high above the stage to perform his long solo, or rushing off stage to reappear via a trapdoor somewhere a few seconds later. He also provides the show’s most intimate moments via his acoustic versions of Love of My Life and ’39. Cue shouts of “We love you, Brian!” and the magical smartphone light display. You’d have to be hard of heart not to be moved by that.
Watching some brief clips on Twitter in the last week I have been struck by how much Brian is clearly loving every moment of it all. It’s there in his face and in his playing, which seems to me to be as good as ever. And did I mention that guitar sound?
These days Bohemian Rhapsody ends the show proper: funnily enough, it never actually did on any of the original tours. The encore is, of course, We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions. And just like on all the previous Adam Lambert and Paul Rodgers tours, when Champions reaches its climax – that sublime, elongated, thunderous, guitar-heavy ending – I find myself wondering whether it is an ending of another kind as well and whether this is the final time we will hear it and Queen on anything like this scale again.
Starting here, every Queen song ranked – plus an explanation of the rationale and ground rules I adopted
Reflections on Queen’s very first live album, 40-ish years after its release
Growing up as a Queen fan: teenage tales told through 10 Queen-related objects