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July 26, 2017

Adam Lambert proves to be a killer Queen vocalist

Former ‘American Idol’ runner-up a strong fill-in for late rock icon Freddie Mercury

In 2006, Queen co-founders Brian May and Roger Taylor decided to tour with a program featuring the beloved British glam-rock band’s music. To replace legendary lead singer Freddie Mercury, whose 1991 AIDS-related death ended the original quartet’s run, they recruited Paul Rodgers, a pillar of ‘70s rock thanks to his work in Free (“Alright Now”) and, more importantly, Bad Company.

The experiment was an artistic fiasco as Rodgers’ gritty, blues-soaked sound was totally unsuited to Mercury’s florid, higher-register sonic blueprint. Five years later, the two Queensters tried again by recruiting “American Idol” insta-star Adam Lambert, who wowed judges and the public (and May and Taylor) with his performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Last Sunday night at the Arena inside Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn., Lambert emphatically proved that while, in his words, “there is only one Freddie Mercury,” it’s doubtful any other current singer could best him when it comes to replicating the Mercury experience, vocally and stage-presence-wise.

At Mohegan Sun, the act, now called Queen + Adam Lambert —which on Sunday plays the Wells-Fargo Center—provided a demographic cross-section of fans a pretty good facsimile of what it was what like to be at a Queen concert between the late-1970s (when they hit the arena-headliner level) and the late-1980s, when Mercury’s illness began to take its toll.

The fulcrum of the set’s success was, of course, Lambert, who impressively handled both Queen’s most popular (and schlockier) material, including “BoRhap” (probably the emotional pinnacle in a set chock-full of lump-in-the-throat moments), “Somebody to Love,” “We Are the Champions” “Bicycle Race” and “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and turbo-charged rockers, including the show-opening one-two punch of “Hammer to Fall” and “Stone Cold Crazy.” On all of these, Lambert recalled Mercury’s style, but fell admirably short of mere imitation. Instead, he used his own vocal gifts to build upon Mercury’s foundation.

Lambert likewise outshone his immediate predecessor in the role of frontman. Theatrically garbed in a series of outfits that ranged from George Michael black-leather-fetish-wear to a pink satin suit (with brocaded flowers and black platform shoes with stacked heels) that could have been nicked from Elton John’s closet circa 1976, Lambert paid homage to Mercury’s onstage flamboyance, but never appeared to either mock or clone it. And he had the good sense not to wield a half-size microphone stand as did Mercury—another way in which Lambert’s turn transcended mere mimicry.

Mercury’s presence extended beyond Lambert’s reverential performance: He regularly showed up on the giant video screen behind the stage, with each appearance garnering vociferous applause from the audience. But this was not a one-live-man, one-dead-man affair. Major props also go to the two senior citizens who actually run the show. Drummer Taylor, who turns 68 today, was his usual steady-if-un-showboaty self on the drums, and pleasingly contributed his crucial, yet often-overlooked, backup vocals.

May, who last week celebrated his 70th birthday, constantly reminded the assembled multitude that he is one of rock’s criminally underrated guitarists. Throughout the 25-song performance, May’s unique style was preeminent. It’s a blueprint that is far more streamlined and clinical (as befits a university-degreed astrophysicist) than those of other classic-rock British guitar heroes who have always worn their blues-love on their sleeves. Sunday, May thrilled repeatedly with his singular metal-meets-melody six-string strategy.

Sure, his guitar-solo segment—a celebration of electronic effects like phasers, flangers and loopers (which May was building and using decades before the digital era made them ubiquitous) was a tad self-indulgent, but hey, he's earned it!

The bombastic, state-of-the-art staging, whose motif centered on the giant robot that appears on the cover of the band’s mega-smash LP, “News of the World” (celebrating its 40th anniversary this year) also added to the enjoyment, and provided yet another tribute to Mercury-era Queen’s live act. And it was another reason Queen + Adam Lambert’s Mohegan Sun gig was such good fun.

See Queen’s Mohegan Sun set list here

Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860),, iTunes, iHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.

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