Queen vets need better company


March 25, 2006


The semi-reunion of British symphonic rockers Queen -- guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, minus the late singer Freddie Mercury and happily retired bassist John Deacon -- could have gone two ways.

Like the Doors of the 21st Century, INXS and other recent nostalgia jaunts where groups missing their distinctive lead vocalists hired obvious ringers and offered pathetic imitations of the sounds that made them famous, it could have been a complete disaster.

Or, given that May and Taylor turned to another member of England's rock royalty who sounds nothing like Mercury -- former Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers -- it could have been a halfway credible attempt to create something familiar but new nonetheless.

The group's 2-1/2-hour show at a packed Allstate Arena Thursday night started strong, with Rodgers' bluesy growl providing a different but no less effective take on spirited versions of the classic Queen rockers "Tie Your Mother Down" and "Fat Bottomed Girls." And then things started to go dreadfully, horribly wrong.

In the now clearly misguided moment of optimistic anticipation this Queen fan mustered before the show, I forgot the key hurdle it faced: the fact that Bad Company was one of the most vapid and cheesy bands in '70s arena rock. The Queen veterans apparently forgot this, too, because the concert continually lost whatever momentum it had built whenever Rodgers was allowed to howl his way through a Bad Company chestnut such as "Feel Like Makin' Love" or "Can't Get Enough," predictably thrusting his crotch on every downbeat.

With so many great Queen songs left untouched -- No "Bicycle Race"! No "Killer Queen"! No "Sheer Heart Attack"! -- there was simply no reason to let Rodgers flaunt his far inferior catalog, much less surface amid clouds of fog playing a grand piano, or flash a video montage of himself in his long-haired, shirtless, hippie studmuffin youth.

And how about those fashion faux pas? There were the black leather pants (rock star cliche numero uno), the nearly see-through white pants that made fans think of the infamous cucumber scene in "Spinal Tap," and the beyond-silly jacket adorned with the names of dead musical heroes -- including a misspelled "Muddy Water." Ouch.

To be sure, Mercury's high-octane, far-beyond-camp persona was often ridiculous, but he intended it to be: We laughed with him, not at him. Rodgers seems oblivious to the distinction. He wisely ceded the first third of "Bohemian Rhapsody" to a video of vintage Mercury. But when Rodgers tried to showboat his way through the final third of the song -- after the operatic midsection that had always been on tape -- his flat and joyless caterwauling made you long for Wayne and Garth.

The most disappointing aspect of all of this was that May and Taylor sounded as good as they ever did, and they stand as two of rock's most distinctive though most underrated virtuosos; even their longish spotlight solo sections were tolerable, or at least preferable to Rodgers' shenanigans. And both Queen vets seemed genuinely thrilled to be performing once again, and sincerely moved by the outpouring of love from diehard fans.

The hired help -- an extra guitarist, a bassist and a keyboardist who looked and sounded like rejects from Night Ranger or Loverboy -- were certainly nothing to get excited about. But May and Taylor would have been just fine on their own with those fellows backing them, and without making any attempt to replace their original vocalist who, in the end, has proven to be irreplaceable.