There’s being excited to see someone ... and then there’s being really excited to see someone ... and then there’s the sellout crowd at Spectrum Center on Friday night — which was really, really excited to see Queen.
Exhibit A: the 35-second round of thunderous, uninterrupted applause that greeted founding band members Brian May and Roger Taylor after they were formally introduced early in the show by adopted lead singer Adam Lambert. (And if 35 seconds seems not very long, just look down at your watch right now and count out the time.)
Exhibit B: the 50-second round of thunderous, uninterrupted applause that greeted May as he ambled out onto the catwalk to the center of the arena a bit later, armed with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a deferential smile.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you. ... It’s really great to be back,” Queen’s lead guitarist said softly, referring to Charlotte, as he settled onto a stool bathed in the light of a single spotlight. “It was about 1980 we were (last) here, you know. I don’t know what took us so long. Why did we take so long?”
This is true — the last time Queen was in Charlotte, at the coliseum now known as Bojangles’, it still hadn’t yet officially released “Another One Bites the Dust” and original lead singer Freddie Mercury was still more than 11 years away from his untimely death.
The date? Aug. 13, 1980.
By the way, if you were there that night 39 years ago and also there for the Adam Lambert version, I’d like to hear from you.
Because I’d love to know if you can remember the feeling of leaving that particular concert, and how it compares to the feeling you left with after seeing the current “Rhapsody Tour” show.
Because I walked out of the arena Friday night wondering: Is it possible to leave a concert feeling, on the one hand, like you’d just seen the best show of the year and at the same time feeling, on the other, like it was missing a key component that could have made it one of the best shows you’ve ever seen in your entire life?
Charlotte was the last stop on a 23-city summer tour, but May — who at 72 still can shred on the electric guitar as ably as he could half a lifetime ago — promised that they would finish strong.
“Although our bodies are beaten up and tired, you are getting the works,” he said. “You are getting all the stops pulled out.”
Indeed, all the big beats that have become the high-tech tour’s hallmarks (Lambert grinding atop a bedazzled white Harley-Davidson during “Bicycle Race”; May ripping through a near-10-minute guitar solo set to cosmos-inspired visuals meant to remind fans of his background as an astrophysicist; Taylor standing in ably for David Bowie on “Under Pressure”) were executed with enough gusto that one could have confused this with opening night.
Lambert — who was the runner-up on “American Idol” now more than a decade ago, believe it or not, and who is now just a few years shy of 40 — is clearly about as perfect a stand-in for Mercury as anyone could ever find. Clearly, as evidenced by the fact that May and Taylor not only said grace over him in the first place, but that they’ve also continued saying grace over Lambert since giving him the job back in 2011.
But his is not an imitation, in the way that Rami Malek’s was, in the terrific Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” released last year. Malek’s genius was to fully inhabit the character of Mercury; he practically disappeared into the role.
Lambert’s aim, meanwhile, seems to be less about trying to mimic and more about trying simply to honor Mercury’s spirit. He is essentially the same glammy, hammy, guy-liner-wearing kid you remember from the slightly-more-shrill but still-jaw-dropping renditions of Queen classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Are the Champions” that he performed on “Idol.”
He just gets to wear more-expensive costumes now. Well, and to perform with one of the greatest rock bands of all-time, night after night after night.
“I still feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” Lambert told the crowd, after nailing the vocals on “Killer Queen” (which saw him perched atop keyboardist Spike Edney’s grand piano, theatrically rolling his eyes and waving a giant red fan while dressed in a gold suit with black pinstripes and gold boots). “It is such an honor to be performing with heroes like this, and to be carrying a torch for one of my favorites ... the one-and-only, irreplaceable Freddie Mercury!”
It’s been said before that Lambert’s approach to his performance — the uniquely flamboyant persona, the uniquely soaring voice, the tendency to overdo the vocal cartwheels during the big moments in songs like “Somebody to Love” and “Under Pressure” — make the proceedings feel more like a touring Broadway musical than a touring rock show.
But then again, it’s not a stretch to believe that Mercury would quite likely have turned out to be a lot like Lambert if he’d been born 35 years later.
Besides, it’s more about the music than the man, at this point: Getting the opportunity to share in the communal experience of 17,000-plus people, all in the same room, standing with their hands in the air and clapping along to “Radio Gaga” is a bucket-list item for any Queen fan. So is sharing in the communal experience of 17,000-plus people stomp-stomp-clapping to get the band to return to deliver “We Will Rock You” in the encore.
Just the idea of Mercury is enough to elevate moments like that.
Seriously: Part of what makes the experience of a Queen concert in the year 2019 so poignant now is — well, one, the memory of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” movie; but two, again, it’s that idea of Mercury. His absence truly makes the heart grow fonder. The fact that he’s gone is now what makes Queen shows special, if that makes any sense.
It’s a double-edged sword, though. As much as I enjoyed the show, I know I would have enjoyed seeing Queen with Mercury back in the Charlotte Coliseum at that August show in 1980 even more. I know others also walked away wishing they’d gotten to see Mercury when he was alive because I heard them wishing that, out loud.
And in the end, the night belonged to Mercury.
After May made mention of how long it’d been since the band had come to Charlotte last, he performed an emotional solo acoustic version of “Love of My Life” rendered even more emotional by some tech wizardry that made it look on the big screens like he was duetting with Mercury. (Basically, live simulcast footage of May was juxtaposed next to archival footage of Mercury singing the same song.)
“I’ve got a feeling he’s here all the time really,” May said of his late bandmate, wistfully. “I still see him.”
As the song closed, Mercury appeared via the on-screen effect to acknowledge May with a point and a soft smile, before turning and walking away, his image fading to black.
Pretty much everyone, I think, would agree that Lambert is a more-than-acceptable substitute frontman for Queen. Very talented. Very likeable. Very fun.
Still, at that moment, I think pretty much everyone also would agree that it would have been nice — really, really nice — if Mercury could have stuck around just a little bit longer.
Queen + Adam Lambert’s setlist
1. “Now I’m Here”
2. “Seven Seas of Rhye”
3. “Keep Yourself Alive”
4. “Hammer to Fall”
5. “Killer Queen”
6. “Don’t Stop Me Now”
7. “Somebody to Love”
8. “In the Lap of the Gods... Revisited”
9. “I’m in Love With My Car”
10. “Bicycle Race”
11. “Another One Bites the Dust”
12. “I Want It All”
13. “Love of My Life”
15. “Doing All Right”
16. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”
17. “Under Pressure”
18. “Dragon Attack”
19. “I Want to Break Free”
20. “Who Wants to Live Forever”
21. (Guitar Solo)
22. “Tie Your Mother Down”
23. “The Show Must Go On”
24. “Fat Bottomed Girls”
25. “Radio Ga Ga”
26. “Bohemian Rhapsody”
27. “We Will Rock You”
28. “We Are the Champions”
Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes