Freddie Mercury's phantom

GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 03/08/2014
Adam Lambert

STAGE PRESENCE: Adam Lambert walks the talk as Freddie Mercury's stand-in.

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How strange to be Adam Lambert. Here he is, a global pop star in his own right, now touring the world playing understudy to a ghost.

In 2009, Lambert was runner-up on American Idol. He has since topped the US singles charts, and made two albums that sold a couple of million copies. His solo career has taken root in unexpected places: in 2012, he was the only Westerner invited to sing on China's most popular TV show, his performance beamed out to 520 million viewers. But for the past few years, he has become best known for slipping into a dead man's leather pants and heading out on the road as frontman with Queen.

In many ways, it makes perfect sense. As a flamboyant gay man with abundant charm, a killer voice and a penchant for glam theatrics, he is three-quarters of the way there. But he is not Freddie Mercury.

"No, that's true," agrees Lambert, who is backstage in a Toronto dressing room getting ready for a sold-out Queen show.

"I was extremely apprehensive the first few times I fronted this band, because I was so intimidated by their legacy. Freddie Mercury was such an iconic vocalist, a once in a lifetime star, and their songs are fabulous. Plus you've got Brian [May] on guitar and Roger [Taylor] on drums, who are such great players. But they made me feel comfortable, and we have fun. Playing with these guys is an amazing adventure. It's making me a better live performer, and it also makes me think about what kind of artist I could be."

Is he the champion, my friends? Will he, will he rock us? Scaramouche, Scaramouche, can he do the fandango? We will soon see, as Lambert fronts Queen when they perform here in early September, their first tour to New Zealand since 1985.

How did he land the gig? "When I did the American Idol finale, Queen were invited to perform with me because I had sung Bohemian Rhapsody in my initial audition. It felt like a really nice, natural connection, so we kept in touch, then I did the MTV Awards and some stadium shows with them two years ago in Europe, including the Hammersmith Apollo, which was an old stomping ground of theirs. We had a lot of fun and wanted to do it again, so here we are, on our most extensive tour yet."

The reviews so far have been excellent, with Lambert praised for "revitalising the franchise", putting his own spin on the songs while channelling the energy and arch wit of the dearly departed Mercury.

A trawl around the net uncovers splendid live photos of the hungry young pretender in his pomp at 32, strutting around enormous arenas, reclining on a purple velvet chaise lounge wearing a glittering crown, striking all the right triumphant poses, cutting a lithe and youthful figure alongside original guitarist May, now 67, with his alarming afro of luxuriant grey curls.

Behind them, Taylor, 65, complements the frontline's aural assault with his bombastic battery, thundering away at the drums, his 23-year-old son, Rufus Tiger Taylor, playing back-up on a second drumkit at his side. Former bassist John Deacon, meanwhile, retired in 1997, and is presumably ambling around one of his stately homes somewhere while replacement Neil Fairclough does the business in his stead.

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In the course of the show, Lambert rattles through half a dozen costume changes, the leather, lycra and leopard-print creations modelled on classic Freddie fashions of their day. On a good night through a monster PA, with more lights on show than many Third World cities and those familiar anthems belting out one after another, I imagine the effect would be spectacular, especially when viewed through aging eyes misty with nostalgia.

But it must be a tough gig, analogous, perhaps, to the tours undertaken by The Doors or INXS once their defining frontmen lay indisposed beneath six feet of cold clay. Not everyone approves. Some fans remain outraged that May and Taylor continue to perform under the Queen banner minus Mercury, and the duo was much maligned after previous tours fronted by former Bad Company singer, Paul Rodgers. Which presumably puts a lot of pressure on Lambert.

How does he stop the current tour coming across as an elaborately staged karaoke cash-in?

"Has Freddie Mercury left me big shoes to fill? Of course. That's why I have such fabulous shoes on tour. You should see my f.....' heels! But fortunately, Freddie and I have some things in common. We're both big, loud singers, but our voices are different, so finding my own voice within the songs has been an interesting challenge. It's important to put my own stamp on them without straying too far from the originals. The key

is to be mindful of the original intention of the songs. What is the emotional core of this song? What feeling is it trying to generate in the listener? I try to focus on that."

Certainly, Lambert is one of few contemporary male singers who could convincingly match Mercury vocally. Born in Indiana, raised in California, he has a truly staggering vocal range, leaping the octaves with little loss of power and hitting notes above High C. Fellow rock screamer Meat Loaf even claimed in a 2012 interview that only two other popular singers had a voice to equal Lambert's: Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston.

He grew up doing a lot of musical theatre, he says, and was only nine when Mercury died of an Aids-related illness in 1991. "When I was a kid, I didn't listen to a lot of rock music. But I started falling in love with rock'n'roll in my early 20s, and when I got into the Queen back catalogue, it struck me how unique they were. What sets them apart from a lot of other iconic bands is their diversity. There are funk songs, some heavy blues-rock, catchy pop tunes, theatrical glam-rock songs, baroque operetta pieces - they really pushed the envelope musically."

They also, lest we forget, challenged a few gender stereotypes along the way, and I don't just mean that spendid video for I Want To Break Free where Mercury does the hoovering in a frock. During the 70s, coded band-name aside, Queen was just another band with a closeted singer who believed his sexual orientation might be poison to record buyers.

But during the 80s, with the encouragement of his straight bandmates, Mercury was more open about his homosexuality, and Queen helped gay culture gatecrash the mainstream pop world. As one of America's few openly gay pop stars, does Lambert appreciate the band's politics as well as its music?

"I do. But the funny thing about the gay connection with Freddie is that, despite the fact that there are a lot of veiled references to his sexuality in his lyrics, most people totally missed that at the time. The only thing that was blatantly connected to the gay community was some of the fashion he put forward, like the black leather biker hat and sunglasses and moustache, which was a key look in the early 80s gay scene in New York. But a lot of the stuff he was doing in the 70s wasn't considered gay, because glam rock already played with a lot of gender conventions. People like David Bowie, Lou Reed and Marc Bolan all tried to look androgynous, whether they were gay or not. For most of them, it was just a look."

What he really did appreciate, says Lambert, was Mercury's ability to go "way over the top" without alienating his audience.

"Sometimes the idea of camp confuses people in today's media. They don't always get the fact that melodrama can be fabulously entertaining. But I really love performers that go down that road, and go there with conviction. Freddie was a master of that. Sadly, a lot of contemporary rock bands have lost that knack, though that theatricality still lives on with a lot of modern female performers. The costume changes, the dancers, the elaborate themed staging - that's what modern pop music is about, and Queen helped create the environment for that."

Lambert needs to go. He's on stage in less than an hour, and he has some tight leathers to wriggle into. After 30 minutes in his calm and thoughtful company, I am a good deal less cynical about his decision to ascend, for a short time at least, to the throne.

After all, you have to admire a person who takes on a controversial commission like this and plays it to the hilt without irony. Lambert seems to have wholeheartedly embraced his role as a latter-day Mercury surrogate, not attempting to directly copy the man so much as using his powerhouse voice to celebrate an inspirational showman's life.

There's even a posthumous duet of sorts; at one point in the show, Lambert trades verses with video footage of Mercury singing Bohemian Rhapsody live at Wembley Stadium during the 1980s.

"I tell you, New Zealand is in for a treat. The tour so far has been a blast, with audiences going absolutely crazy. Yes, there's a huge sense of nostalgia for people, but that's fine by me. The idea of this tour, really, is to remind the audience of this band's legacy. Even though I'm a new singer for them, we didn't want to make a new version of Queen; we wanted to remind people what was so great about them in the first place."

Queen + Adam Lambert Auckland's Vector Arena on September 3 and 4. ticketmaster.co.nz or daintygroup.com.

- Sunday Star Times

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