There's a certain subset of longtime Queen fans who probably won't ever warm up to Adam Lambert, the 2009 American Idol runnerup who is touring with the legendary British rock band as Queen + Adam Lambert. Stepping into the shoes of the singular Freddie Mercury is supposed to be impossible, after all.
An entire Hollywood movie is dedicated to painting Mercury as an extraordinarily bright and irreplaceable shooting star. It's like asking someone to fill in for Paul McCartney or Robert Plant. Who's up for the task? Nobody, really.
Queen's original bassist, John Deacon — who penned "Another One Bites the Dust" and "You're My Best Friend," among other singles — told Bassist magazine that Mercury's 1991 death effectively ended the group. "As far as we are concerned, this is it," he said during the 1996 interview. "There is no point carrying on. It is impossible to replace Freddie." (True to this sentiment, Deacon has not participated in Queen's musical projects since that period.)
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Lambert, who is on his third world tour with Queen — including a stop at the BB&T Center August 17 — does a damn fine job, all things considered. Since forming Queen + Adam Lambert in 2011, he's proven himself a technically flawless singer with crystal-clear intonation and the ability to hit all the absurdly high notes. In fact, guitarist Brian May told Yahoo that Lambert has an even better range than Mercury: “It’s a voice in a billion. Nobody has that range, nobody that I’ve ever worked with, not just the range but the quality throughout the range."
Lambert also plays the role with plenty of flair, often appearing onstage wearing a crown or sassily addressing the audience from a plush purple chaise longue. He's both campy and flamboyant — necessary qualities for the frontman of Queen.
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He's just not very rock 'n' roll. Queen has always had an over-the-top theatrical element (think the 1975 album A Night at the Opera). But Lambert comes across as if he's performing Broadway versions of "Fat Bottomed Girls" or "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" or like he's singing in a squeaky-clean made-for-TV musical about Queen. He sounds stellar during the introduction of "Bohemian Rhapsody" (the part that's basically a standalone piano ballad), but far less convincing during the hard-rock section after the mock-opera, when he's supposed to be delivering these lines with live-wire intensity: So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?/So you think you can love me and leave me to die?
One of the most remarkable aspects of Mercury as a vocalist was his ability to run his voice ragged. He could hit all the high notes, sure — plenty of singers can despite what May says — but he could also get downright nasty and raw in a way that gave Queen an uncommon edge. In his rafter-raising voice was passion and pain and triumph. He fucking rocked.
While Lambert wows audiences via his American Idol-style vocal embellishments, he doesn't press quite the same fist-pumping buttons as Mercury — which is totally fine. To the credit of the surviving members of the band, they've always recognized that Queen + Adam Lambert is more of a tribute than a reboot. During performances of "Bohemian Rhapsody," Lambert routinely leaves the stage while video footage of Mercury performing plays behind the band. And Lambert himself has said the gig is all about honoring Mercury rather than impersonating him.
The best way to consume Queen + Adam Lambert is to appreciate it for what it is — an amazingly talented singer doing his own thing backed by rock legends playing their amazing catalog of music. Lambert is not Freddie Mercury, but, then again, he's not trying to be.