Return of the Champions

Queen + Paul Rodgers, live at Pacific Coliseum, Vancouver, 13 April 2006.


Just got back from an overnight trip to Vancouver (via WestJet) to see the last show in the Queen + Paul Rodgers tour. The trip was a string of almost unmitigated annoyances; I did a lot of walking around Vancouver in the rain, because the buses were not running at strategic points and taxis were consequently unobtainable. None of that matters; I saw Queen.

Not, I grant you, the original Queen. Only three of the original five members were on this tour. They couldn’t connect with the late Freddie Mercury, of course (with one spectacular exception, of which more below), and John Deacon has retired from performing. But Roger Taylor was there, white-haired and fleshy-jowled, but still one of the most amazing bravura drummers in rock. And of course there was Brian May, hardly looking a day older than when Queen last toured, and in his hands was the uncredited fifth member of Queen, the fabled Red Special. I had a friend years ago who found a set of instructions for building an exact replica of the Red Special, which May built from a bizarre collection of ‘repurposed’ and handmade components, and set himself to the task. I believe he actually finished building his replica. I wouldn’t be surprised; there are over a thousand in existence. But it doesn’t matter. To get the trademark Queen guitar sound, you not only have to play Brian May’s guitar, you have to be Brian May.

The show began right on the dot, 37 minutes late, with the stacks belting out Freddie Mercury singing ‘It’s A Beautiful Day’, the poignant lead-off track from the posthumous Made In Heaven. While all eyes were on the black-curtained stage, waiting for the band to appear, two spotlights flashed on to reveal Paul Rodgers on the catwalk, singing ‘Reaching Out’ a cappella. Then the curtain really did open, revealing May, Taylor, and three sidemen giving a blistering rendition of ‘Tie Your Mother Down’.

Now, Paul Rodgers cannot possibly match Freddie Mercury’s performance on the original Queen recordings, but then neither could Freddie himself — in concert. By the time Queen gave up touring in the mid-eighties, Mercury had become decidedly whiskey-voiced. In fact, to judge by the sound of his singing on Live Magic, the nodules on his vocal cords must have resembled a cluster of grapes. And even at his best, he always rewrote his lead vocals to miss the soaring high notes that defined the limits of his trademark male coloratura. Thus toned down and simplified, Mercury’s stage performance could be matched by a human being. At any rate, it could be matched by Paul Rodgers, as he proved throughout. Rodgers is not an operatic singer, but he has immensely powerful pipes and exceptional pitch. In place of Mercury’s acrobatic soars and swoops, he gave the songs a straight-ahead power rock treatment that perfectly complemented the old-fashioned heavy-metal playing of May and Taylor.

Later on in the first set, Brian May paid his personal tribute to Freddie Mercury, perching on a stool at the end of the runway to perform ‘Love of My Life’ on acoustic guitar, with frequent lacunae in the vocals so the crowd could sing along. It’s amazing what you can come up with when you have a reputation. Few people would be able to find roughly 12,000 backing singers under any circumstances; Queen’s lot not only sang their parts, they sounded pretty good.

Paul Rodgers’ particular musical genius does not lend itself to the more complicated and fruity Queen songs, so there was no ‘Killer Queen’ or ‘Millionaire Waltz’ this trip. But the band performed an intelligently-chosen and well-paced selection of hits: ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, ‘Another One Bites The Dust’, ‘Dragon Attack’, Rodgers’ ‘Feel Like Making Love’, and one new song featured on the Queen + Paul Rodgers live double-CD set. (Mea culpa, I didn’t catch the title.) And, as K-Tel used to say, MANY MANY MORE!

One song that got a tongue-in-cheek reworking was ‘Hammer To Fall’. The band performed the first two verses as a slow power ballad. Then May lightly strummed the next chord, shrugged, grinned, and burst into a full-velocity finish, a note-perfect reproduction of the metal-anthem studio version from The Works. And there was much rejoicing.

At the set break, Roger Taylor performed an impressively athletic drum solo for several minutes, including a segment where he donned a sombrero and was accompanied by the three session men, whose heads were similarly attired. After he subsided to a rumble, Brian May came out and performed a long guitar solo, using his trademark stereo-echo effect to play three-part fugal harmonies. The bulk of his solo was an elaboration of the long guitar section from ‘Brighton Rock’, but at the end he segued into the monumentally difficult ‘Chinese Torture’, originally a bonus instrumental track on The Miracle. ‘Chinese Torture’ sounds like its name, and is actually two minutes of not only double-stringed but triple-stringed lead solo exhibitionism. I don’t normally care for guitar wank, but I’ll gladly watch Brian May doing monkey tricks with the Red Special any day. So many rock guitarists think a solo is just about playing riffs and power chords as loud and fast as they possibly can. May remembers to put in music.

The second set featured a crescendo of highlights calculated to please a crowd of knowledgeable Queen fanatics. Roger Taylor performed his first lead vocal of the night with a stellar performance of ‘I’m In Love With My Car’. Then, leaving his riser, he sang lead on a couple of Queen’s later, more electronic tracks, with drum machines faithfully filling in the percussion lines from the original sessions. He sang a touching lead on ‘These Are The Days Of Our Lives’, matching the emotion if not the purity of Freddie Mercury’s version on Innuendo, while the screens upstage showed home-movie footage of all four members of Queen at a picnic in the 1970s. ‘Radio Ga Ga’ was another audience participation number.

Bassist Danny Miranda, ex of Blue Oyster Cult, got his literal moment in the spotlight when Brian May announced: ‘We’ve got a riff for you. Someone stole this riff . . . I think his name was Vanilla Ice . . . and now we’re taking it back.’ To the best of my knowledge, Queen seldom played ‘Under Pressure’ on tour in the old days, partly because of the impossibility of getting David Bowie onstage for just one song; but they played it brilliantly on this tour. In place of Bowie and Mercury, Rodgers and Taylor shared the lead vocals, May jumping into the second verse with a shockingly accurate take of the falsetto part.

Next up was ‘The Show Must Go On’, another of those haunting rock & roll tragedies that Freddie Mercury wrote when he knew he was dying. Consequently, Queen had never played the song live before; that they did so now was enough to justify this tour, all by itself. And for the grand finale, the band was joined by Freddie Mercury himself on the big screen, contributing canned piano and vocals to the inescapable ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. His part was intercut with Rodgers’ so smoothly that it was sometimes difficult to tell which one of them was singing at a given moment. You had to watch the live man’s mouth to be sure.

After that, of course, the crowd cheered itself hoarse for several minutes in a blacked-out arena, until the band came onstage for the inevitable encore. They started with ‘We Will Rock You’, the only Queen song that could possibly follow ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. But instead of segueing directly into ‘We Are The Champions’, they first gave Rodgers a chance to cut loose with Free’s trademark anthem, ‘All Right Now’. ‘Champions’ then followed, with an obligatory pseudo-ad-libbed verse thanking Vancouver for coming to the last show of the tour. May closed with his instrumental version of ‘God Save The Queen’, the band took their bows, and the tour was over. Rodgers went to his home in Vancouver, and the others went their separate ways. I hope they won’t be separated for long; this show deserves to be seen again.

Reviewers are hailing ‘Return of the Champions’ as the tour that brings arena rock back from the dead. They may be exaggerating, for there are few acts that could match the energy and musicianship that this edition of Queen brings to every show. But even if arena rock is dead, Rodgers, May, and Taylor have proved that the corpse is still kicking.


Extra kudos to Jeff from Campbell River, who sat one row behind me, and his lovely young daughter Megan, who punctuated the high points of the applause with a very creditable imitation of a Beatlemaniac at Shea Stadium. Also to Margot and Cindy in section D, about eight rows down from my seat on the other side of the aisle, whose almost non-stop dancing lent an extra air of corybantic ecstasy to the event. And also to a certain Fat-Bottomed Girl, whom I was thinking of at the appropriate moment, and wishing she was there.

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