The idea of a legendary band continuing without its original lead singer is by no means new. It’s been adapted by everyone from stadium rockers INXS, Journey, and Chicago’s own Styx to the slightly modified monikers of psychedelic superstars The Doors Of The 21st Century and The Dead. On one hand, the practice allows fans the chance to continue experiencing their favorite band on the concert circuit, but then again it can also be seen as an attempt to cash in on a brand name that isn’t exactly the real deal. It’s a conundrum currently faced by Queen & Paul Rodgers, a recent reunion of sorts that pits the one time Free and Bad Company singer with original members Brian May on guitar and Roger Taylor on drums (minus bassist John Deacon, who has retired from touring).
“It’s a dream come true for us in a way, because we weren’t expecting to be back,” shares Taylor, phoning from home in England. “It wasn’t planned. Paul just happened along on a TV show, we collaborated, it worked so well, and we just thought ‘Wow this is crazy, he’s one of our favorite singers ever.’ We were really devastated by Freddie [Mercury, singer who died in 1991] going and we had no will to collectively start that thinking about working again really. We didn’t think he was replaceable; the beauty of having Paul is not only is he one of the greatest singers, which without any shadow of a doubt in my mind he is. He’s not a Freddie Mercury impersonator. He’s not trying to be anybody else but Paul Rodgers. And the fact that he’s singing some of his and a lot of our material is great for us — it gives us a blues edge that we didn’t have before.”
While the move has left some diehards scratching their heads, a peak at the Return Of The Champions DVD or CD indicates exactly what Taylor describes. The muscularly voiced Rodgers by no means tries to retread the flamboyantly charismatic Freddie Mercury, but rather interprets the catalog with the band’s airtight rhythm section. Both Hollywood Records projects were recorded live May 2005 in Sheffield, England on a sold-out European tour that played to rave reviews, escalating the demand for more dates overseas.
“We find out more about what people think through the Internet and Web sites and the reaction to the tour in Japan, especially Europe, was phenomenal,” Taylor says. “Paul was really welcome with open arms. We thought there might be a little ‘Where’s Freddie?’ backlash — while actually Freddie can’t be here — but it wasn’t like that at all. There were sort of placards saying ‘Thank you Paul’ and ‘Thank you for getting back together.’”
That reception is evident on both Return Of The Champions projects, capturing the latest Queen incarnation in all its raw power, but also recalling its ’70s and ’80s peak, combining soulful flourishes with explosive stadium anthems and a barrage of hook-heavy mega-hits. In addition to the obvious selections (“We Are The Champions,” “I Want To Break Free,” “Another One Bites The Dust, “The Show Must Go On,” and “We Will Rock You”) there’s a handful of deep cuts and a few Rodgers mainstays. Among them are Free’s “All Right Now” plus Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “Can’t Get Enough,” though Mercury is also lovingly reborn during “Bohemian Rhapsody” (featuring his vocals and image piped in over the loud speakers and screens). A combination of international tour buzz, these releases popping up Stateside late last year, plus warm-up dates in New York and Los Angeles, has led to a full-fledged American tour this spring.
“We were testing the waters because we didn’t know what Queen meant in the States anymore, whether they would sell out, which they did, so we took that to be a good sign,” Taylor explains. “The audiences were great and so were the reviewers. We were a little under-rehearsed for the first two, but the way we put it was it was two toes in the water. We try and sort of cut the show to where we are. In the States, we’ll be concentrating probably more on earlier Queen material and more for Paul on Bad Company than Free for instance. The audience really will probably be there wanting to hear material that they know, so there is a lot of well known stuff, but there’ll also be a few surprises.”
Pacing has always been an essential element in the Queen concert experience, demonstrated at times through fist-pumping rock ‘n’ roll powerhouses pitted against theatrical ballads. That interplay continues in this setting despite Rodgers’ more naturally forceful tones, but Taylor promises a cohesive and organic experience.
“The Queen shows were always what I like to think as very dynamic, they sort of ebbed and flowed,” he reiterates. “You can’t get a high point without quiet moments. There’s a quiet section and various peaks in the show and we really fitted the songs a lot into a natural flow. We’ll be throwing all sorts of different things in, leaving a couple of others out and sticking a couple of others in depending on where we’re at.”
No matter what side of the sea Queen & Paul Rodgers have played, members are noticing an increasingly large amount of teenagers and 20-somethings in the audience. Though it has been a surprise to the trio, they’ve pinpointed the youthful insurgence to a few key pop culture moments. The first is the continued popularity of cult movie classic Wayne’s World and its soundtrack inclusion of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“The irony of Wayne’s World was that it came just in the wake of Freddie actually dying, but it did bring the younger audience in,” Taylor muses. “We thought we had to have a nod to Freddie in the show. That song more than any other was so him. It was entirely his arrangement and composition. It’s also a duet in the end between Freddie and Paul. We felt it was a nice piece of theater — a little tribute to him — and it went over great.” Other variables include the fact that “We Will Rock You,” “We Are the Champions,” and “Another One Bites The Dust” are consistently used as sports anthems, while those and cuts like “Under Pressure,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and “Killer Queen” continue to be played regularly on radio. Then there’s the musical We Will Rock You, which has translated the band’s catalog to a theater storyline along the lines of the ABBA-influenced Mamma Mia and the Billy Joel-inspired Movin’ Out.
“I really hate musicals but personally I think it works,” admits Taylor of the latter venture, which he and May oversaw during the creation phases. “The interesting thing in London was when Rock You started four-and-a-half years ago, I looked at the audiences nightly and I was very worried. It seemed like the average age of the audience was 55 and wearing gray pullovers. And I went in about a year ago — two years ago maybe — and the average age of the audience was 20. So we really did penetrate down into the younger market, which was fantastic. There was nothing more depressing than the idea of just appealing to middle-aged older people.”
But no matter what demographic has followed Queen, the most common question members are being asked revolves around new material. Will there ever be another studio CD, and if so, will Paul Rodgers be the lead singer? The group’s last effort was providing instrumentation for unfinished Freddie demos on 1995’s Made In Heaven, but other than that it has been a steady stream of anthologies and concert compilations.
“We’ve got a lot of fire in our bellies, and I think you’ll see that on stage,” enthuses Taylor, hinting that life still remains, but straying from specifics. “I think it will be great and stupid not to use Paul’s wonderful instrument. His voice is just incredible and brings a whole new life to songs.”
Though the faithful cross their fingers hoping the tour propels the group in that direction, Taylor, May, and Rodgers are exclusively focused on making each date of the tour count, including their long-awaited debut in the Windy City. “We’re just looking forward to getting back to Chicago and doing the States again,” he says. “It’s been such a long time, but a lot of my memories of freezing in the Chicago Stadium, which I think has been knocked down. I remember we played a beautiful auditorium, a classical auditorium I think, and I went to some great blues clubs in Chicago. I have a lot of memories there. And you have incredible architecture I must say!”
Fitting, then, there has been such a build-up for her majesty’s arrival.
– Andy Argyrakis
Appearing: 3/23 at Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
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