The Queen is dead; long live the Queen. It’s been 22 years since Freddie Mercury died, and yet his band—who managed to continuously find new life throughout its original run—has done so yet again. The current heir presumptive? American Idol’s Adam Lambert, a self-proclaimed Freddie Mercury devotee who was still in diapers the last time Queen played New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1982.
But for all of Lambert’s preening and expert vocal acrobatics, this was still very much Mercury’s show. Queen’s remaining original members, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor (bassist John Deacon retired in 1997), have said time and time again that this show is not a reproduction and that Lambert is not meant to be a Mercury clone. So while his skinny leather pants, leopard-print tuxes, and use of studs and fringe in a single outfit would likely all be Freddie-approved, Adam Lambert was very much his glam-punk self, and Mercury still kept a couple of coveted solos for himself.
The band came out hard with songs such as “Now I’m Here,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” and “Fat Bottomed Girls” and spent the majority of their two-plus-hours-long set showcasing the still-obvious talent that made May a guitar hero in the first place. Lambert catwalked and peppered the crowd with sporadic stage banter (“When I feel lonely, I just drink and douse myself in rhinestones like any sensible gay,” he said before launching into “Somebody to Love”). Lambert’s crowning theatrical moment was his vaudevillian performance of “Killer Queen”—sprawled out on a purple velvet chaise lounge mid-arena, platformed, glitter-covered boots in the air, spewing champagne onto the audience. Guaranteed to blow your mind, indeed.
But for all of the show’s highs (including a rousing “Who Wants to Live Forever,” co-starring a dazzling disco ball), there were still enough tributes to fill a VH1 special. “Years and years and years ago,” May eulogized mid-show, “some of you will remember and some of you were not even born yet—there was a man named Freddie Mercury. And he was extraordinary.” May then quietly duetted with the audience on an acoustic performance of “Love of My Life,” a contemplative ballad he used to, back in the day, perform next to a seated Mercury under simple stage lights.
And May is right. Of those filling the Garden on July 17, many were probably early fans of the British rock band—who would sing along with early hits like “Stone Cold Crazy” and not think of it as a Metallica song. And then, there were plenty who probably learned of the band by listening to their parents’ LPs—a couple of generations worth who weren’t around to witness Queen’s 1970s heyday, or their miraculous comeback at 1986’s Live Aid concert in London (29 years ago this week), or the lingering decline and death of the band’s brilliant and beautiful leader.
And yet, it was without irony that not 15 minutes after May’s tribute (and Taylor’s rendition of “These Are the Days of Our Lives”—a schlocky song Taylor wrote for his frontman for their final album before Mercury’s death, and sung while playing a video montage of ’70s band nostalgia), that Lambert returned to the stage to the opening bassline of “Under Pressure,” a song that younger generation of audience members would undoubtedly place as ’90s staple “Ice Ice Baby” before remembering its very glam origin. Sigh.
It was the finale the brought the nostalgia-fest to its peak, though, and gave Mercury his biggest moment of the night. Lambert took the first verse of the band’s opus, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and moved aside for Mercury to take the second (via old concert footage). The operatic section? The band cleared the stage. They let the original recording do the heavy lifting, opting to play their 1975 disembodied head video, complete with all the complicated vocal layering that made those “Galileos” and “Bismillahs” famous in the first place. And why not? Even with a first-rate fill-in like Lambert, sometimes you just don’t mess with perfection.