"Everything is as it should be."

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Queen - The Forum: A Review

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QUEEN WITH ADAM LAMBERT - THE FORUM - JULY 19, 2019

Last Friday, July 19th, I continued my year of living musically by diving into the nostalgia pool to see Queen with Adam Lambert at The Forum. Queen are rock royalty from the 1970’s and 80’s which are currently comprised of two pivotal members from their original lineup, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, as well as new editions Adam Lambert (lead vocals), Spike Edney (keyboards), Neil Fairclough (bass) and Tyler Warren (percussion).

Like most rock fans of my generation (Gen X), I grew up with Queen being in heavy rotation on the soundtrack of my life, but unlike many of my friends I never really got into them like I did other bands from the era. I certainly recognized their genius, and Freddie Mercury’s astounding vocal abilities, but I just never became a super fan. For instance, I have never bought a Queen album…and it wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I actually possessed a Queen album when I got their three greatest hits compilations for free.

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As much as I liked Queen’s songs, and I did like them a lot, in my eyes Queen was sort of a second level band from the second wave of the British Invasion. To me Queen existed, along with everyone else in the 1970’s, in Led Zeppelin’s long and dark shadow. As my musician friend Steam Roller Johnny once aptly said of Queen, “listening to Queen is like eating an ice cream sundae, it is delicious but it isn’t something you can eat all the time”. Even though that assessment seems spot on, there really isn’t any good reason I can conjure that I haven’t been a bigger Queen fan in my teenage and adult years.

When I saw Bohemian Rhapsody in the movie theatre last year I thought the film was pretty average fare that shed no new light on Queen or Mercury. That said, the thing that jumped out to me was the final fifteen minutes of the movie that showed Queen playing Live Aid. That sequence was electrifying and it sent me to the internet to find more live Queen. After devouring what seemed like hours of footage, I was left in awe of the band’s power and live presence.

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Coincidentally…or more likely not…shortly after Bohemian Rhapsody got attention in movie theatres and at the Academy Awards, Queen announced a tour. Freddie Mercury has been dead for nearly thirty years, but the Queen machine has not stopped touring over the decades and cashing in on rock fan’s nostalgic impulses. The problem for Queen has always been…how do you replace Freddie Mercury, one of the greatest singers in rock history? From 2004-2009 Queen successfully went with the substantial and formidable talents of former Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers as their lead singer. Rodgers is a stellar blues/rock singer in his own right, and even though his vocals are markedly different in almost every way from Mercury’s, the merger could be deemed to have been fruitful.

In 2014 Queen did a world tour with American Idol alum Adam Lambert as Mercury’s stand in. I was dubious of Lambert’s ability to go from a cavity inducing pop-star wannabe to a front man of one of the handful of great rock bands in the history of the genre. I asked my buddy and all around musical encyclopedia, music aficionado and Queen fanatic Red Dragon, if Queen with Adam Lambert was worth seeing. Dragon has seen the band many times, the most recent being with Lambert at the helm a few years ago. Dragon gave two vociferous thumbs up on Queen with Adam Lambert. That was good enough for me…so I bought the tickets the day they went on sale.

I’ve been to The Forum a few times to see concerts and it is a really great venue. While the nosebleed seats can be problematic due to acoustic issues, everywhere else in the building is a pretty good seat. Our seats were mid-arena and gave us a solid view of the festivities.

The crowd was, not surprisingly, mostly middle-aged or older. There were some younger people, and even families with young kids, but all the place there were white-haired, beer-bellied fellas and heavily made-up, fat-bottomed aging ladies squeezed into age-inappropriate tart attire. As I made my way up the stairs to my seats, I got stuck behind not one, but two, older folks trying to navigate the stairs with their canes. A women in front of me apologized for her lethargic pace and said mournfully, “it sucks getting old”. While it seemed at the time that truer words were never spoken, I would bet Freddie Mercury might argue that getting old beats the alternative. I later saw three more older folks being assisted up the stairs, to their seats, one was equipped with a full walker….a truer metaphor for the state of rock and roll could not be found.

There was no opening act so, in accordance with the band’s instructions, we arrived promptly at 7:45 for what was supposed to be an 8:00 show. The band did not go on until 8:30 but no one seemed to be any worse for wear from the delay.

Queen hit the stage with all the grandiosity you’d expect from rock royalty and the crowd erupted as they played the aptly titled “Now I’m Here”. The thing that struck me from the get go was that the band and Adam Lambert are very keen to respect Freddie Mercury and his fans. For the first four songs it was guitarist Brian May who stood at center stage in the spotlight, not lead singer Lambert.

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It wasn’t until there was a brief break in the action where Lambert addressed the audience that he took a more pronounced role. During this break Lambert spoke to the crowd and mentioned the “pink elephant” in the room…namely that he was here and Freddie wasn’t. He assured the audience that he wasn’t here to replace Freddie because no one could replace Freddie. He was, just like everyone in the crowd, here to honor Freddie and his legacy. The band then kicked into a scathing version of “Killer Queen” with Lambert taking over the spotlight.

Lambert graciously and wisely embraces his role as substitute and surrogate Freddie, and his gratitude and undeniable cheeky energy are contagious as the audience not only welcomes him into the role but actively roots for him to succeed. Lambert has landed the sweetest karaoke gig on the planet and he knows it. He plays his role with aplomb and even though he constantly defers to May and Taylor throughout the show, he is able to a cohesive and quality front man in his own right.

Lambert is a fantastic singer and his voice is well suited for Queen’s catalogue. There was a palpable sense throughout the arena of people being awed by Lambert’s vocal prowess and you could feel people being more and more impressed by his singing as the night wore on.

While Lambert has a remarkable voice…Freddie was a remarkable singer. For all of Mercury’s vocal gymnastics, what made him so amazing was that his voice’s foundational power was in the lower register…and from there his astounding range took off. Lambert’s vocal power is found in his higher register, which is pretty amazing to behold but does alter the songs a bit and turns a gutteral connection with the material into, dare I say, a Broadway-esque, performance of the songs. In comparing it to dance, Freddie Mercury was Gene Kelly, who hit the bottom of the note hard, while Adam Lambert is Fred Astaire hitting the top of the note loudly but gently.

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The “pink elephant” Lambert refers to is not just Freddie’s absence but the thing that he and Lambert have in common…namely their homosexuality. Freddie Mercury was gay…but Adam Lambert is super gay. If Freddie Mercury were alive to watch Adam Lambert perform he’d say, “I’m gay…but wow…that guy is REALLY gay”. To Lambert’s great credit he is unapologetically gay and people love him for it. I couldn’t help but think about the middle-aged and older people in the crowd who were swooning with every prance and preen of Lambert’s, and that in their lifetime homosexuality has gone from being shamed and marginalized to being celebrated.

It was also a striking sign of the total victory in the culture wars that one of Lambert’s great weaknesses as a front man is that he is so painfully safe. Lambert’s campiness is more akin to Liberace than it is to Freddie Mercury. Freddie was, at his core, a freak…a freak vocalist, a freak songwriter, a freak character…Freddie was aggressively a freak…it is what made him so deliciously Freddie Mercury. Adam Lambert is a nice kid with a great voice who gets a little sassy sometimes.

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Brian May proved himself to still be among the rock guitar gods with his performance on the 19th, which was his 72nd birthday. May’s playing was precise and crisp, chock full of power and bombast. His voice has held up quite well too, as he sang acoustic version of “Love of My Life” and “‘39”. it was during this quieter section of the show that the audience spontaneously serenaded the appreciative septuagenarian with a hearty ‘Happy Birthday”.

Roger Taylor’s voice has held up pretty well too as he belted out solid version of “I’m In Love With My Car” and the Bowie parts of “Under Pressure”. Taylor’s drumming is another subject altogether and he has definitely lost a step. To his credit he accepts this fact and is very well aided by a Tyler Warren, who is the second drummer who covers for any weak spots in his drumming game. The Warren is a whirling dervish who works his ass off in the shadows to keep the Queen machine rolling.

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The highlights of the show were Killer Queen and Fat Bottomed Girls, the rendition of which really kicked the show into high gear, as well as exquisite back to back versions of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Under Pressure”. The crowd was in a state of orgasmic delirium for the show’s climax of “Another One Bites the Dust”, “Radio Ga Ga” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” (which features a vocal cameo by Freddie Mercury and younger Queen) which led into an encore that opened with a digital Freddie mercury playing “Ay-oh” with the crowd and then erupted into “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions”.

Overall, the Queen with Adam Lambert experience was a contagiously joyful one from start to finish. From Queen’s terrific catalogue of songs to Brian May’s guitar virtuosity to Adam Lambert’s sterling vocals and welcoming presence, the entire night felt like a fitting tribute to Freddie Mercury in every single way, and I think would have made the original King of Queen very proud.

If you are a Queen fan then you really should go see them as they are worth every penny. If, like me you are a marginal fan (or a new fan), I highly recommend you pull the trigger and spend the money to see them when they come to your town because, while they made good on their promise of ‘we will rock you’, and proved that that they really are the champions, they are getting long in the tooth and there is no telling when another one will bite the dust.

SET LIST

Now I’m Here

Seven Seas of Rhye

Keep Yourself Alive

Hammer to Fall

Killer Queen

Don’t Stop Me Now

In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited

Somebody to Love

The Show Must Go On

I’m in Love With My Car

Bicycle Race

Fat Bottomed Girls

Machines (or Back to Humans)

I Want It All

Love of My Life

‘39

Happy Birthday

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

Last Horizon

Guitar Solo

Tie Your Mother Down

Dragon Attack

Another One Bites the Dust

Radio Ga Ga

Bohemian Rhapsody

ENCORE

Ay-Oh

We Will Rock You

We Are the Champions

©2019

The Cult - The Greek Theatre: A Review

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THE CULT - THE GREEK THEATRE LOS ANGELES - JUNE 15, 2019

Last Saturday night, June 15th, I continued my year of living musically when I went to see The Cult at the Greek Theatre here in Los Angeles. The Cult, a British band currently comprised of Ian Astbury (lead vocals), Billy Duffy (lead guitar), John Tempesta (drums), Damon Fox (bass) and Grant Fitzpatrick (keyboards), are playing shows to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their seminal 1989 album Sonic Temple, the most commercially successful record of their career.

I’ve been a Cult fan since 1985, which was when I first heard their breakthrough hit She Sells Sanctuary off of the Love (1985) album. That song, with its signature 12 string guitar riff, is the band’s most iconic hit and is one of the great rock songs of the 80’s.

The Cult have always been a bit of a strange band, an amalgam of different genres and types splattered together to make a whole that is not so easily definable. Their first album, Dreamtime, was a psuedo-psychedelic take on the alternative Manchester sound popular at the time. There second album, Love, was still in the alternative Manchester neighborhood but with a decidedly heavier sound. Their third album, Electric, which is my favorite album of theirs, is a balls to the wall, unapologetically raunchy and muscular hard rock blues album. Which brings us to Sonic Temple, the band’s fourth studio album.

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Sonic Temple was the band’s biggest hit and definitely catapulted them into the upper echelons of radio air play. The album is a high octane concoction of fan friendly hard rock and is much more refined and musically “clean” than Electric, which is maybe why I comparatively don’t like it as much as its predecessor. Sonic Temple boasted four top-notch singles, Fire Woman, Edie (Ciao Baby), Sun King and Sweet Soul Sister, that dominated rock radio airplay in 1989 and 1990. After Sonic Temple the band, like many other hard rock bands from the 80’s, found itself overwhelmed by the cultural tsunami that was grunge and never recovered its commercial and artistic footing or relevance.

The Cult’s early career musical eclecticism made them difficult to define, but so did their inability to come up with a signature “look”. As much as we’d like to think that success is based on purely the music, the truth is that having a distinct style is just as important, especially back when MTV was in its heyday. The Cult were never able to make a music video that captured the imagination, and that hurt them in so far as it came to making the leap from rock stardom to rock superstardom. The Cult were always much more popular in Europe and the U.K. than they were in America, and I think that the lack of a standout video is a big reason why.

Another issue that may have held the band back was that its lead singer, Ian Astbury, who had all the prerequisites for rock stardom, a great voice, charisma and solid song writing, but never put together a coherent and discernible visual style that set him apart. In the Love years he looked like a Steven Tyler wannabe with bandanas hanging from his mic stand. In the following years he embraced a sort of Jim Morrison-esque manner and writing style but never found his footing as a true original…at least in terms of how he looked.

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The band have put out 6 studio albums in the 30 years since Sonic Temple, and while some of them have been pretty good (1991’s Ceremony is excellent), they have never recaptured their pre-grunge swagger. Like many older bands, The Cult are now cashing on as a nostalgia act, touring on albums they made a quarter century or more earlier. In 2009 they went on the road and played the entirety of the Love album on the Love Live Tour. And in 2015 I caught them as they toured playing entirety of the Electric album. The reality is that this is how these guys have to make a living now a days, and while they won’t sell out stadiums anytime soon, they can certainly pack mid-size venues like The Greek Theatre.

I have never been to The Greek before, so I was excited to see the venue. I was surprised how easy it was to get there, and since I bought parking ahead of time, the logistics of getting to and from the place were made simple…always a big plus in Los Angeles.

The Greek is a gorgeous open air venue that makes the most of its Griffith Park setting. There is nothing quite so gorgeous as watching the sun set and the moon rise in a pristine outdoor space. The Greek is also very well run and maintained as it is impeccably clean, has expansive bathrooms, and offers a pricey but decent array of food and beverage choices.

Having not been there before, me and my companion, the irrepressible Lady Pumpernickle Dusseldorf, arrived early to the festivities. The show was schedules to “start” at 6:30, but had been moved up to 6 for some reason, and much to our shock we got there right after 6.

There were three opening acts, Vowws, Zola Jesus and Prayers. Vowws went on first and were a goth male/female duo. I knew nothing about them, and while they weren’t terrible, I do not feel compelled to learn more about them. They were good musicians and singers, but they lack any charisma or stage presence, and they weren’t aided by the fact that their moody music should be listened to in a dark room and not under the glare of an unforgiving sun. That said, the guitarist guy sounded like Depeche Mode when he sang and the female singer had a Siouxsie-esque voice. Bottom line is this...they were tolerable.

The second act up was Zola Jesus, of whom I had not heard. Zola Jesus is a female singer, and she was accompanied by a guitarist and a violinist. Zola Jesus walked onto the stage wearing a bizarre, body length gauze that obscured the audiences view of her. She looked like a cross between the bride of Frankenstein and a very poorly made Mummy. That said, she had a gorgeous voice and a confident and intriguing stage presence. I really enjoyed her performance and the fact that she incarnates this sort of stage entity that accentuates her really strong and lush voice.

The third and final warm up act was Prayers. Let me put this as succinctly as I can... Prayers is the worst band I have ever seen in my entire life. The band consists of one guy playing his computer, another guy odiously screeching out the lamest of lyrics, and a third guy who doesn’t wear a shirt and just stands there not moving at all. The band’s music is best described as cholo goth rap…and no that is not a typo. Prayers’ music was excruciatingly awful and their performance went on and on and on. Enduring this band’s set was like surviving both the Bataan Death March AND the Trail of Tears. At one point the lead singer, and I am using the term singer very loosely as his voice is aggressively repulsive, took out a knife from his pocket and was displaying it menacingly in some poseur-Satanic way and I began praying to the gods that he would either slit his own throat or throw the knife to me so I could slit mine…anything to end this musical holocaust. Finally, after what felt like hours, the root canal known as Prayers left and we were left with nothing but a beautiful night and the featured act.

The Cult did not go on until after 9, which was a bit frustrating as we’d been sitting there since 6. But when they did go on they hit the ground running. They opened with a rip roaring rendition of Sun King and the audience, that seemed pretty tired from the endless warm up acts, greeted them with boisterous cheers.

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When I have seen The Cult in the past, Ian Astbury has always come across as an inconsistent, erratic and irritable stage presence. When I saw them in 2015 he admonished the crowd for not cheering loud enough while he gave what was a decidedly lackluster performance. While Astbury should have always been the center of attention at a Cult show, his uneven performances left him fading into the background. On the other hand, guitarist Billy Duffy, who is the picture of consistency and energy, never let me down. Of The Cult shows I have seen in the past, they always turned into Billy Duffy shows, with Duffy’s astonishing guitar prowess and showmanship taking center stage eclipsing Astbury and his uninspired effort and sullen demeanor.

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I don’t know what it was at The Greek the other night, maybe it was the fact that the band had never played there before, but Astbury gave the best show that I have ever seen from him that night. Astbury was in jovial spirits, was engaging and energetic, even vivaciously dancing and prancing around the stage. This show was not a Billy Duffy Cult show, this show was, from start to finish, and without question, an Ian Astbury Cult show…and that was pretty cool to catch. Astbury even looked great, as he sported a new shorter hairstyle and a cool outfit and lean and trim as if he had lost a bit of weight.

While Astbury’s voice is weakened and cannot hit the higher notes of his youth, he seems to have come to grips with this limitation and lets the audience fill in the gaps where he can no longer tread. For instance, on the hit Sweet Soul Sister, Astbury no longer even tries to hit those difficult and athletic notes of the chorus, instead he lets the crowd carry the day, and it works well in building rapport with the audience…or at least it works better than admonishing them for not cheering loud enough.

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While Astbury took and held center stage, Billy Duffy was his usual steady brilliant self. Duffy’s playing hasn’t slipped a bit since the glory days of thirty years ago. Duffy is also a premier showman as he masterfully works the crowd as well as his Gretsch White Falcon. Duffy is one of the most underrated and overlooked guitar players of his time, but anyone who sees him live will attest that his playing is exquisite.

The Cult roared through their set, which included raucous renditions of Sweet Soul Sister, American Horse, Fire Woman and a glorious back to back combo of American Gothic and Spiritwalker. The crescendo was the final song of the regular set which was She Sells Sanctuary. While I love the song, and the band plays it with aplomb, the 12 string is missing from the live version and that always is a bit of a let down…but Billy Duffy certainly makes the most of what he has and scorched his way through the song.

After a rudimentary walk off…the band returned for a three song encore, which began with an explosive Wild Flower, then transitioned to a less than stellar Rain ( a great song but which suffers because it has been reworked for live shows, no doubt due to Astbury’s vocal limitations) and finally ended with a delirious Love Removal Machine that was a perfect cap to a fantastic show.

My biggest complaint about the show was that it felt too short. The band played for about an hour and twenty minutes or so and it felt like an abbreviated set. That said, I can also understand that the reason why Astbury was in such high spirits and so energetic was maybe that he knew he only had to do his thing for an hour and half and then go back home (he and Duffy both now live in Los Angeles).

While the show could have been longer, I have no complaints about the quality. The Cult gave everything they had and it was certainly well worth the price of admission. Speaking of which, the tickets we had cost around $58 or so, and we had excellent seats on the lower end of the North Terrace. My recommendation is if you are a marginal Cult fan, they are definitely worth seeing live in a mid-sized venue. You will definitely see Billy Duffy in all his amazing guitar glory, and you might, like me at The Greek the other night, get to see the splendor of Ian Astbury - Rock Star.

SET LIST

Sun King

New York City

Automatic Blues

Sweet Soul Sister

American Horse

Soul Asylum

Edie (Ciao baby)

Fire Woman

Rise

American Gothic

Spiritwalker

The Phoenix

She Sells Sanctuary

ENCORE

Wild Flower

Rain

Love Removal Machine

©2019