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I Am The Champion Of Queen + Adam Lambert

“Can you guys believe that we’ve been performing together for eight years now?” No, I cannot believe it, Adam Lambert! The facts check out, though: The former American Idol sensation has been on tour with Queen for basically this entire decade. Queen + Adam Lambert is itself an institution at this point, one enjoying elevated public interest due to last year’s Oscar-winning Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Last night Queen and Lambert’s Rhapsody Tour made its way to Columbus, the Queen braintrust’s first stop in Ohio’s capitol since 1977. During a solo acoustic interlude, the band’s resident guitar hero Brian May joked that a good chunk of last night’s audience wasn’t born yet and maybe their parents or grandparents were in attendance way back when. It was a fair assessment given the age range at Nationwide Arena, where Boomers and Gen Z and everyone in between were present to behold a bounty of classic rock staples. Queen always brought together a few different music scenes, and in this extended afterlife they’ve been enjoying, they’re now unifying generations.

I myself was there with my father-in-law, a retired high school marching band director known to test his stereo equipment by blasting “Fat Bottomed Girls.” I didn’t live through the band’s rise like he did, and I can’t pretend I recognized every single track they trotted out last night, but even as someone who came to the band through Wayne’s World and The Mighty Ducks, the prospect of hearing my favorite Queen songs was still enticing. If my four-year-old daughter was a bit older, she would have come along too, given her recent fascination with “We Will Rock You.” (Like most children, she loves the stomp-stomp-clap beat, but she remains bewildered by the line about “blood on your face.”)

Those songs were on the setlist last night, as were just about every other Queen hit you could have wanted besides, for some reason, “You’re My Best Friend.” It was an impressive reminder of what an FM radio force the band used to be. “Killer Queen,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Somebody To Love,” “Another One Bites The Dust,” “I Want It All,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “Under Pressure,” “Who Wants To Live Forever,” “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Radio Ga Ga” — those alone would make for an imposing catalog, and there was more where they came from. Most importantly, Queen saved their best, most iconic numbers for last, ending the main set with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and encoring with the inseparable “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions.”

Backed by a band including May and founding drummer Roger Taylor — but not original bassist John Deacon, who has mostly lived in seclusion since Freddie Mercury’s death in 1991 — Lambert belted his way through Mercury’s lyrics with formidable charisma all his own. He’s a bit polished and glitzy compared to the near-feral intensity that emanated from Mercury onstage. Thus, given the theatrical elements that were already present in the music, at times it was more like a Broadway production than a rock show. But you don’t advance deep into Idol without a powerhouse voice, and there were plenty of times when the rush of a familiar favorite eclipsed the inevitable comparison game. Watching Lambert put his personal spin on Queen’s material was certainly preferable to Rami Malek’s goofy Mercury impression from the movie. (Taylor did a pretty good job singing David Bowie’s parts from “Under Pressure,” too.)

I only felt the late legend’s absence acutely when video he appeared in video footage intermittently: aside May during the acoustic “Love Of My Life,” ahead of the encore scatting his way through “Ay Oh,” and in the scenes from the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video threaded into the band’s performance of the song. I had been wondering how Queen were going to replicate that song’s elaborate choral vocal sections. The answer: They didn’t replicate them at all. Instead they infused their live performance with the original tracks — a somewhat disappointing choice, but certainly better than the alternative of flubbing it.

If that bit of trickery underlined Queen’s compositional prowess, the setlist was a reminder of how flexible their glammy rock ‘n’ roll formula could be. I was born in the ’80s and came of age in the ’90s, so I sometimes think of classic rock acts as isolated phenomena, when in reality they were in conversation with the rest of popular music. Bohemian Rhapsody illustrated that point in the scene where Queen write “Another One Bites The Dust” in response to Mercury’s newfound love for disco. The lingering influence of the Beatles was just as evident on the McCartney-esque “Killer Queen,” one of Queen’s earliest singles. And May’s excessively lengthy multi-part guitar solo near the end of the concert pointed to Queen’s intersections with ’70s prog and ’80s hair metal.

That segment in particular cemented my perception that May, and not Lambert, is the real star of the Queen + Adam Lambert road show. This seems to be by design — and why not, considering he and Taylor are the last ones standing who actually breathed this music to life in the first place? Lambert was afforded plenty of chances to shine: fanning himself and kicking up his legs atop a piano for “Killer Queen,” lounging on a motorcycle while dressed like Super Shredder (early ’90s youth cinema strikes again) during “Bicycle Race,” traipsing around like Jim Carrey’s Mask or Jack Nicholson’s Joker (and again with the early ’90s movies) during “Don’t Stop Me Now.” But when the show opened with “Now I’m Here,” May was the one who appeared out front on the catwalk, with Lambert confined to the back of the stage. May was the one who performed solo in the middle of the set. May was afforded double-digit minutes to show off his guitar skills, when really he had already established that by nailing his riffs and solos from Queen’s greatest hits.

May’s solo on “Bohemian Rhapsody” alone was explosive enough to validate him as one of the greats. It was one of several moments last night when nostalgia, great songwriting, and dynamic performance converged and skepticism about arena rock reunion tours gave way to pleasure. Maybe, as my father-in-law confirms, this was not a life-changing experience like seeing Queen with Mercury. But by the time the band got around to “We Will Rock You,” they already had and then some.

SETLIST:
“Now I’m Here”
“Seven Seas Of Rhye”
“Keep Yourself Alive”
“Hammer To Fall”
“Killer Queen”
“Don’t Stop Me Now”
“Somebody To Love”
“In The Lap Of The Gods… Revisited”
“I’m In Love With My Car”
“Bicycle Race”
“Another One Bites the Dust”
“Machines (Or ‘Back To Humans’)”
“I Want It All”
“Love Of My Life” (Brian May solo)
“’39” (Brian May solo)
“Doing All Right”
“Crazy Little Thing Called Love”
“Under Pressure”
“I Want To Break Free”
“You Take My Breath Away”
“Who Wants to Live Forever”
(Guitar Solo)
“Tie Your Mother Down”
“The Show Must Go On”
“Fat Bottomed Girls”
“Radio Ga Ga”
“Bohemian Rhapsody”

ENCORE:
“We Will Rock You”
“We Are The Champions”