Queen strike the perfect balance

"Irreplaceable" is a word to be used sparingly but it could almost have been Freddie Mercury's nickname. The flamboyant genius, the ultimate showman, the rocker with a voice of a nightingale - when Mercury died in 1991, mourning fans the world over understood the remaining band members' decision to put Queen on ice.

At a tribute concert at Wembley stadium the following year, some of the world’s top performers lined up to prove how right they were. Emotional it may have been, but nobody – from Elton John and David Bowie to George Michael and Annie Lennox – had what it took to wear Mercury’s crown.

Thirteen years later, Brian May and Roger Taylor, Queen’s guitarist and drummer respectively, decided that they had at last found their man.

Despite the cynicism of many, at least here in Stockholm, Paul Rodgers is not an unknown. Brian May describes him as ‘one of the world’s great vocalists’ and anyone familiar with his work with Free and Bad Company will know that he is not a man to be daunted by a big stage.

And so it proved. From the thunderous opener ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ to the traditional finale of ‘We are the champions’, Rodgers brought such vitality to Queen’s catalogue that there was no room for sentimentality at Stockholm’s Globen arena on Saturday night.

Rodgers is canny enough – and Queen understand their fans well enough – not to try to replace Freddie Mercury. But with his powerful voice – less pure than Mercury’s but more throaty, more bluesy – he doesn’t so much claim the songs as his own as respectfully offer an interpretation. And that’s good enough for Queen fans.

Queen’s music, like that of ABBA or The Beatles, is timeless but rock stars, whatever they would have you believe, are not. And what was notable about Saturday’s concert was the dignity of the three stars. Rodgers standing aside for Taylor and May, May politely thanking the audience for their support over the years, Taylor handing over to his ‘best friend’ May – all very genteel.

Genteel, yes – quiet, no. Instead of the usual hotdog and T-shirt sellers, dozens of hawkers lined the route from the station to the arena crying, “Ear PLUGS! Ear PLUGS!” They appeared to be doing a brisk trade and by the time the fifty-something superstars reached the opening harmonies of ‘Fat bottomed girls’ a few thousand fifty-something Swedish ears were well-protected.

It wasn’t like this in ’75 when Queen first played in Stockholm, but May seemed genuinely pleased that – judging by the cheer – so many people from that gig had shown up on Saturday. Earplugs or not.

From start to finish, the show was a pure crowd-pleaser. The band dusted off the cobwebs with “Crazy little thing called love’ and ‘I want to break free’ before May got more personal with a solo version of ‘Love of my life’.

Older fans will remember how he and Freddie Mercury would sit beside each other on stools, delighting audiences the world over with Mercury’s enchanting love song. Now May performs alone with an empty stool beside him. Say no more.

Roger Taylor is no mean vocalist either: he performed the only new song of the night, an acoustic number written to support the fight against AIDS in Africa, called ‘Say it’s not true’, before belting out ‘Radio ga ga’ to a sea of synchronised handclapping.

So, going through the Queen concert checklist: what about the solos? May is one of the world’s great guitarists and a ten minute solo reminded the audience that it was his virtuosity that lay behind Queen’s unique sound, while Taylor picked up the pace with a knackering individual drum performance.

“If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?” Brian May asked the audience.

“Freddie Mercury!” roared the crowd.

It was the wrong answer, as it turned out – May was simply introducing the 1991 hit ‘I want it all’. But the audience didn’t have long to wait for what they really wanted.

On a giant screen above Roger Taylor’s drums, there he was – Freddie Mercury at the piano playing the unmistakeable opening notes of Bohemian Rhapsody. He sang, Queen played live beneath him and after the ‘Galileos’ Paul Rodgers bounded back on stage to deliver the rocking end. Classily done.

The end of the show was never the end of a Queen show and everyone knew what was coming in the encore. ‘The show must go on’ – never performed before this tour – set things up for Rodgers’ own big song of the night, Free’s ‘All right now’. And then, of course, ‘We will rock you’ and ‘We are the champions’.

Globen may only have been two thirds full – while the rest of the European gigs were sold out – but as the audience poured out the area around the arena was echoing with noisy approval.

Maybe the crowd was anticipating a return. Maybe they were high on nostalgia. Or maybe they still had their earplugs in.


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