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Queen and Adam Lambert at Madison Square Garden, an Operatic Epic

August 10, 2019

by Juneau

“It’s his show now.” – Sir Clem of West Hartford

With Rhapsody, the Queen and Adam Lambert touring show that is crisscrossing North America this summer, this trans-generational marriage of rock legends and meteoric superstar has surpassed itself. That’s saying a lot, given how excellent their previous tours have been. It’s not just that Queen and Adam have melded and ripened like a fine Burgundy over the years. With this production, the superb musical wine has been poured into a Baccarat decanter to do it full justice. The artists seem to be delving deeper and striving for transcendence in a way that can only be called operatic. For this show truly was rock as opera.

Consider Rhapsody as an opera in Five Acts (with costume changes to demarcate each act). It opens with a bombastic orchestral version of “Innuendo” as lasers erupt like solar flares around a dazzling gigantic crown that spans the stage. With the band’s famous crest at the center, this gilded tiara is riddled with symbols of Queen’s personas, histories, and works–enough to keep our resident professor of art history Xena busy for months on end. The motifs reappear throughout the show, lending subtext, gravitas, and coherence to a song catalog that veers from the silly to the sublime.

The Crown ascends heavenward, and we find ourselves in Act 1, on an opera stage with Queen as the entertainers, complete with crimson and gold opera theater boxes (nicely referencing the “Innuendo” video), including a lower tier filled with actual VIP fans. The band makes its entrance onstage via the conjurer’s trick of seeming to be at the top and rear of the set before suddenly materializing at the front of the stage, to the appropriate strains of “Now I’m Here.”

While the scenery alludes to “A Night at the Opera” and “Innuendo,” the last studio album recorded before Freddie died, as the show unfolded over the next two hours and 15 minutes, I came to feel that what I was experiencing was far more than an album tribute. The tale that unfolds is the story of Queen itself. Rhapsody is no less than a recounting of one of the great epics of music history–the band’s phoenix-like rise, fall, and now, rebirth.

Adam, sheathed in a gold brocade suit that blends beautifully with the gilded trim of the box seats, proceeds to belt out “Seven Seas of Rhye,” “Keep Yourself Alive,” and “Hammer to Fall.” He odalisques atop the piano, scarlet fan a flutter for “Killer Queen.” Then it’s back to a hard-charging “Don’t Stop Me Now,” before he turns to the velvet side of his vocals with “In the Lap of the Gods… Revisited,” ratchets up to gospel level with “Somebody to Love,” and then goes full Pavarotti with “The Show Must Go On.” Written at a time when Freddie knew he was dying, this tragic rock aria’s full pathos and passion were brought home by powerful visuals of Queen’s crown shattering as golden columns come crashing down.

Following this catharsis, Roger Taylor shifts gears to perform “I’m in Love With My Car,” which serves as an interlude and transition to Act 2, when the show does indeed go on, with Adam  rising like Persephone through the catwalk floor, but he’s no demure Greek damsel. Perched atop a muscular Harley Davidson, he is in full gay leather regalia, up to the spiky epaulets that Glambertologists know and love from FYE and Mardi Gras. I had been hoping the velvet chaise from the first Q+AL tour would someday reappear. When I saw Adam lolling playfully atop that Harley while histrionically delivering “Bicycle Race” (one of the most endearingly silly songs of the repertoire), I realized that this bike is the chaise, reincarnated. The froth of “Bicycle Race” gives way to the thumping crowd-pleaser, “Another One Bites the Dust,” the less familiar(to me) but compelling “Machines,” and strident “I Want It All,” which concludes Act 2.

As Adam exits for a breather, the incomparable Dr. Brian May takes the stage for Act 3. This is the quiet, emotional soul of the show, when the world’s sexiest septuagenarian astrophysicist cradles 20,000 hearts in the vibrating web of his voice and acoustic guitar and invites the audience to “create some memories” and sing along to “Love of My Life.” He urges the crowd to hold up their smartphone flashlights, and the arena blossoms into a Milky Way of LEDs. As many times as I’ve seen this, with the final verse delivered by Freddie immortalized on video, the moment never fails to break my heart. Grief and loss modulate into nostalgia with the country band harmonies of “39” with its strangely resonant lyrics about time travel (based, as Dr. May notes, on Einstein’s theory of general relativity).

Then it’s on to Act 4, which flashes back to some signature moments from Freddie’s career. Wearing his most subdued outfit of the evening, Adam delivers “Doing Alright,” written by Brian May for the band Smile, a coy reference to Freddie’s back-alley audition, now known to millions through the global success of Bohemian Rhapsody the movie. This is followed by Elvis-tribute “Crazy Little thing called Love,” the David Bowie cowritten “Under Pressure,” and my personal favorite “I Want to Break Free.” Act 4 culminates in a spectacular display of rainbow lasers to the strains of “Lost Horizon,” and then Adam’s voice emerges from darkness, singing the opening lines of “Who Wants to Live Forever.” He and Brian step into the spotlight and what follows is an astonishing duet, voice and electric guitar entwining in one of the greatest pairings in music.

Act 4 segues beautifully into another magical May moment. Against the firmament of outer space, a barren asteroid (I’m told it is named for Dr. Bri) rises up with our rock legend astride, his silver tresses forming a glowing nimbus about his handsome features. An armada of colorful planets descends from above, evoking once again an image from the Innuendo video. As the planets swirl and bob around him, our esteemed doctor twangs out the wistful theme from Dvorak’s New World Symphony. My left brain scoffed while my right brain softly wept. On the one hand, the melody seems too literal a soundtrack for the discovery of new planetary worlds, and yet it taps into a timeless longing we humans have to be reborn into a better place, a longing seemed especially poignant at this time when America seems to be sliding backward toward a darker era.

We now come to Act 5, the penultimate (for those who know more is to come). Brian’s growling guitar transitions into the pounding rhythm of “Tie Your Mother Down” as Adam reappears, resplendent in glittering silver vest and tight pants, and so much fringe! The entire arena, already on its feet from giving Brian a standing O, is now jumping up and down and singing along. The chorus intensifies with “Fat Bottom Girls,” crescendoes with Radio Gaga’s arm claps, and ends in a volcanic release with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” On night 2, at the very end, there was a remarkable moment: Adam lowered the microphone and gazed regally over the arena, and 20,000 voices softly sang “Nothing really matters, anyone can see, Nothing really matters, Nothing really matters to me. Any way the wind blows…” Goose bumps.

As the thunderous cheers and applause start to subside, Freddie appears on the giant screen one final time to lead the audience in his signature “Ay-o” call and response. He was extraordinary in his ability to command a crowd, but so was Queen the band, and so to now a fully confident Adam, as we are reminded when the band makes a final appearance to lead the arena in an earth-shaking performance of “We Will Rock You” and final singalong of “We Are the Champions,” an anthem that honors all of us, the ordinary folk who have gathered in this place of magic to share joy, memory, meaning.

The dramatic arc of Rhapsody the opera is not literal or linear, but felt subliminally through our feelings about the music and the band’s history. We experience wild joy, grief, gratitude, and finally, hope. We see the torch ignited by Freddie and his surviving bandmates, taken up by Adam Lambert, and embraced by the millions of fans who have kept Queen’s music alive in their hearts, now being passed forward to a new generation, the children (of whom we saw many at the Garden) smitten by the Queen legend enshrined in film, in Bohemian Rhapsody. Music and memory, transcending time and space.

Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away
Don’t you hear me calling you
Write your letters in the sand for the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew.

Screen Shot 2019-08-10 at 6.02.57 PM

brianmayforreal: Perspicacious Pics from Madison Square Garden show tonight by : @jaimethemiracle @lunawest @helenbovill3d @tyler_fn_warren @lunawest – – Thanks guys ! Bri

Notes Operatic and Beyond

That Rhapsody presents as an operatic rock spectacle seems fitting, given Freddie Mercury’s well-known love of opera. He idolized the Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé, with whom he collaborated, and strived for operatic storytelling and emotion in his music, notably with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s not a stretch to say his own life, with its triumphs, star-crossed loves, and premature death, was straight out of Puccini. He was the most operatic of rock gods, and it’s therefore fitting that the man who is carrying forward his legacy is blessed with the most operatic voice in popular music today.

One of the most thrilling aspects of the Queen and Adam Lambert collaboration is how gorgeously Adam’s voice complements Brian May’s guitar. His voice penetrates through the wall of sound with the power and focus of an amplified guitar. When he and May dialog (as happens in many of the songs) it’s like listening to a great operatic duet at 100 decibels. (Huge kudos to the sound designers who achieved such clarity against an immersive sound that shook the rafters without crossing the pain threshold.)

The fit between Queen and Adam Lambert goes well beyond the voice. Queen has always been sui generis, with a sound that defies categorization. Adam too is an artist who doesn’t fit into a box. His defining characteristic is his emotional intelligence and ability to interpret songs across all genres. This is what makes him uniquely suited to front Queen. It’s not just the three-plus octave range. It’s the stylistic range. He keeps the songs alive by bringing fresh perspectives and plumbing new depths, as any great music deserves.

If I have one critique, it’s that “pink elephant” speech that Adam makes in Act 1. It’s the only “off” note in the entire show. After seven years as Queen’s lead singer, Adam does not need to assuage any Freddie idolizers. Freddie was a rock god and he left us too soon. We can celebrate his memory and enjoy Queen’s music together without apology. On previous tours, Brian May would ask “what do you think of the new boy?” On this tour, he calls Adam “our brother.”  Or as my friend Ellen’s husband Clem, a wise man with impeccable taste in music, observed after the Boston show, “It’s his show now.”

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Carolyn J permalink
    August 10, 2019 3:40 pm

    Thank you for writing such a beautiful essay describing the show. When I see the last show in Charlotte, I will think of the acts you describe. Soon it will be my time to see Rhapsody.

  2. Wendy Cohen permalink
    August 10, 2019 5:41 pm

    You speak so articulately, saying what I haven’t the words to say. I have cried, laughed and squeezed the hell out of my wife at every concert I’ve been blessed to attend.

  3. Toni B permalink
    August 10, 2019 8:12 pm

    Brilliant bloody brilliant Juneau! 👏

  4. Janice Marie permalink
    August 10, 2019 8:40 pm

    Thank you! Yes!

  5. adamsbonbon permalink
    August 10, 2019 9:32 pm

    Juneau, you are a Superstar in your own right…or should I say “in your own write”.

  6. Lorriedawn permalink
    August 11, 2019 12:23 am

    Your insight into the legacy of QUEEN past and present is a true triumph! Thank you for putting this out there! Bravo! My heart is grateful!

  7. Sherry permalink
    August 11, 2019 12:27 pm

    Bravo!

  8. Pat permalink
    August 11, 2019 7:50 pm

    Wow. Thank you for that. You presented the entire show to me. Wish, wish, wish I could see them live but our fair city is not on anyone’s tour ‘must go to’. You created a visual and an auditory picture that gave me goosebumps and hope🙂🙂.

  9. Angie permalink
    August 11, 2019 9:22 pm

    Awesome review and noteworthy for the personal and deep-rooted emotions. I was fortunate enough to see Queen with Freddie 3 times and once with Paul Rodgers. I am so thrilled that Queen got Adam to continue the legacy and Adam is definitely a one-off. Been a huge fan since I was a kid. It is truly an amazing feeling to see so many younger kids learning the greatness that is QUEEN!]

  10. joann permalink
    August 12, 2019 10:18 pm

    AWESOME!!!!!!!!

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