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Queen's mercurial turn

October 24, 2005|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Queen was the most chameleonic of '70s rock bands, changing its musical colors to fit any number of musical styles and usually coming up with something uniquely Queenly.

So it's appropriate that the English band's return to active duty after two decades rests on one more adaptation, and a major one at that. Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor have enlisted veteran singer Paul Rodgers to join them on tour and perform the songs that are so strongly identified with their charismatic, unique and irreplaceable singer Freddie Mercury, who died of AIDS complications in 1991.

In a bit of rhetorical tightrope-walking, the participants are billing the act as Queen + Paul Rodgers and saying that the singer is not "replacing" Mercury. That sounds good on paper, but it doesn't mean much on stage, where Rodgers and company inevitably must face down listeners' deep attachment to the former frontman.

At the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, in the second of only two planned U.S. concerts, the recombinant Queen took on the challenge and wrestled it into submission, overcoming a certain awkwardness -- it was a little like introducing your new husband to your ex's family -- with the principals' emotional engagement and the durability of Queen's best songs.

Wisely, the band also made the Mercury spirit part of the program Saturday, dedicating songs to him, projecting film footage of him and even incorporating his recorded image and voice into its performance of "Bohemian Rhapsody."

But they weren't promising a full resurrection of the Queen experience, and nobody should have been expecting more than a chance to hear those old favorites aired out by the players who created them. (Queen bassist John Deacon is staying retired, and May, Taylor and Rodgers were supported by three additional musicians.)

Rodgers, known mainly for his early-'70s bands Free and Bad Company and long regarded as one of British rock's best pure singers, has a vocal range and steely timbre that allow him to slide easily into those songs' arrangements,

But as game and engaged as he was, nobody can possibly embody and enlarge Queen's themes of striving against the odds and achieving fulfillment the way Mercury did, with his larger-than-life mix of an outsider's vulnerability and demigod's defiance.

It was that quality that made Queen more than just a clever hit machine. For many fans it was a meaningful, inspirational presence, and while the concert-closing anthems "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" packed all the grandeur anyone could want, there was always that nagging knowledge that everything was a little less magical than it once was.

On its own terms, Saturday's set unfolded with entertaining efficiency, showcasing Queen's bracing eclecticism as it moved from the driving rock of "Tie Your Mother Down" and "Another One Bites the Dust" to the rockabilly of "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and the Bowie-like '80s synth-rock of "Radio Ga Ga." May's guitar-hero solo counted on some affection for vintage-rock excesses, but Queen's audacity and bravado always made its bombast bearable, and so it remains.

Rodgers also got his moments, singing hits from the Bad Company and Free songbooks (Guns N' Roses' and Velvet Revolver's Slash joined May for some high-note dueling on "Can't Get Enough"), and Taylor stepped away from the drums for one of the show's emotional high points, singing the new ballad "Say It's Not True," written for Nelson Mandela's campaign against AIDS.

In its first round, Queen's return to the stage benefits from fans' curiosity and their hunger to hear the music from the source again, as well as from an urge to pay sentimental homage to the musicians.

Once that's out of everybody's system, where does it go from here? Writing new songs probably wouldn't help -- after all, the audiences for such acts as the Eagles and Paul McCartney don't care about the new material those artists might drop into their sets.

Taylor and May could, however, probably come up with a mix of songs different enough to keep things fairly fresh, at least for another tour or two. Now that the ice is broken, they might even think about another singer or two who might suit some of their styles that Rodgers doesn't.

By all means let's be encouraging. If the Queen partners are occupied with touring and have a legitimate outlet for their old songs, maybe they won't be inclined to lend their support to things like "We Will Rock You," the insulting stage musical that trivializes their music and besmirches a legacy they've now taken at least one solid step to restore.

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