By the time I went to the QAL performance in Birmingham on January 23rd, I still hadn’t seen any of the other YouTube footage of them. I’m not sure whether this was because I was still being extraordinarily dim about what’s available on there (possible), or whether I just wanted to be surprised by what I was going to see and hear (also possible). I therefore had no idea of the setlist, but guessed that most of the songs from NYE would be on it.
The stage set was hidden by a backlit curtain bearing the all-too-familiar Queen logo, bathing the stage in purple. The crowd packed in – most of the people near me seemed to be old-time Queenies, but were looking forward to the music.
The audience sparked into excitement at the opening chords of One Vision and there were massive cheers at the silhouette of Brian in the classic “rock guitarist” pose. Then the curtain whipped away like a giant parachute and the lights blazed. Brian and Roger were all in black and Adam looked more like George Michael than George Michael, clad in studded leather and sunglasses.
This great video by Luke Timmins was taken from a distance and shows the build-up into the start of One Vision with its explosion of sound and light.
It was a majestic noise; that spine-chilling, devastating Queen sound, but this time topped with Adam’s powerful, stratospheric voice.
Obviously, the live show was much more “unleashed” than the BBC performance, as there aren’t the broadcasting constraints on language and behaviour. There were a number of costume changes, no doubt carefully chosen to match the various groups of songs. There were also one or two props, such as the purple chaise longue which was used to deliver an incredibly camp version of Killer Queen (which I think Freddie would have loved).
But for me, the focus of my attention was on Adam’s voice, beautiful as he is. Hearing live music is always an infinitely better experience than any recording, no matter how perfect the sound definition is. When you are in a space with live music, you’re aware of many things – the movement of air that happens when sound waves are created, the acoustic quality of the concert hall and all the harmonics and overtones created by the voices and instruments. Our ears are infinitely more sensitive than any recording equipment and we can absorb a far broader sound spectrum.
Just as an aside, I find it odd that some people get taken aback by live performance and comment that it’s “not like the recording”. That’s the whole point; every live performance of every piece of music is going to be subtly – or vastly, different. That’s the beauty of live music.
In the live environment, Adam’s voice had far more colour and dynamic range than I was expecting, even from having heard him on TV. Someone to Love was stunning; the people around me were open-mouthed at the gospel cadenza before the song launched off into its new, rapid-fire ending. The top notes were incredible; mental note to check these out on a piano afterwards.
The greatest surprise of all was Adam’s handling of Save Me and Who Wants to Live Forever. As I didn’t know the setlist, I had no idea these songs were coming.
For me, these two power ballads are the pinnacle of what Queen was producing in the 1980s. They were both written by Brian May; Save Me was for a friend whose marriage had fallen apart, and WWTLF was composed for the fantasy film Highlander, but was inspired by problems in his own life at the time.
Brian May certainly knows how to produce a song that pulls at the heartstrings, and placing these two together was a masterstroke. They’re difficult, difficult pieces of music; they require the hallmark wide range that Freddie Mercury could produce, but also a large dynamic and dramatic range. They’re definitely two of Queen’s operatic arias and Adam nailed them; it was so overwhelming I could hardly breathe.
xTaraLoux’s great video of WWTLF was taken from much higher up in the auditorium than I was, but within it there are some lovely shots of how rapt the audience are. You can also hear a lot of people singing – Brian May even remarked that Birmingham people sang beautifully when Queen performed at Bingley Hall many years ago!
Adam’s technical and performance skills in these songs was just awesome. Most singers will tell you that singing long, sustained phrases is more difficult than singing a song that has a lot of quick notes in it. You’re more likely to get tense; it takes a lot of mental and physical energy to spin out a long phrase, and you may not be able to breathe where you would naturally want to. Then, you have to be able to fulfil the power ballad requirements of belting out some glory notes at the end, just when you’re tired and would like a rest and a drink.
Adam dealt with these superbly – he has what I would call a “quiet” technique. You don’t see the technical stuff happening, he doesn’t pull his face around to get the notes out, and there aren’t any extraneous movements going on (some singers writhe and twitch terribly; they may think it makes it look as though they’re working hard or being dramatic, but it’s just a distraction to the audience). This leaves him with his voice contained and relaxed, and means he has far more energy to just deliver the songs properly.
Also, these two songs need a really intelligent performer to pull them off; by degrees you have to be sad, bitter, wistful and tormented. You’ve been given a beautiful melody and heartbreaking lyrics, but you have to bring the song to life by giving it the drama it deserves – and that includes drawing the audience in towards you, rather than just assaulting them with the music (many singers are guilty of this – loud notes are boring if you do too many of them). There are also songs that you just need to stand and sing – very few dramatic fireworks are required; it’s all done with your mind, as that’s what makes a convincing performance. The production and lighting were beautiful for both and only enhanced the music.
I don’t know which was more beautiful of the two; both used a huge range of dynamics and colour, from the pure silver tone needed for the last line of Save Me, to the huge, agonising climax of WWTLF. When Adam left the stage for a break, I think everyone in the arena was completely wrung out.
The next section of the concert was altogether lighter and we were treated to some of the real crowd pleasers like I Want it All, Radio Ga Ga and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. The finale item of Bohemian Rhapsody was very well handled; old footage of Freddie was spliced into it and Adam even sang a brief duet with him to close it.
That was the end – but it wasn’t the end, as for years Queen have closed their concerts with We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions, usually with Freddie parading around in outrageous fashion wearing a crown. I did wonder how this would be presented, but this had been carefully thought out and Adam reappeared rather as a crown prince than a king, which was just about perfect. Resplendent in a leopard skin suit and coronet, the end of the concert was as good as the beginning; he had paced his voice perfectly as the carefully constructed set had given him opportunities to cool his voice down whilst the others performed without him.
But this show wasn’t just about Adam – it was about Adam with Queen, and they fitted together perfectly. It was easy to see that there was a massive rapport between him, Brian, Roger and the rest of the band. In fact, they seemed to adore him; Brian still had that “hearts in the eyes” look that I’d seen in the footage of the Idol final. They hugged him and just seemed so happy to be performing with him. The music had come alive again and I think there was a tear in the eye of many a hard-hearted old Queenie in the audience.
It was just astonishing – in fact I think it was the best rock concert I’ve ever been to (and I’ve been to an awful lot over the years). The problem was, it just wasn’t enough.