Frontman can change concert from OK to Oh wow!
I was lucky enough to see Queen in concert three times.
The first was 1974 on the “Sheer Heart Attack” tour; the second in 1977 for “Day at the Races”; third in 1980 for “The Game.” The ’74 show remains my favorite. Queen wasn’t bathing in bucks at that point so the monstrous l i ghting rig and massive stage sets weren’t around. The band just came out and crushed it; many folks don’t realize that Queen was a terrific rock band.
All this is on my mind because today is the 25th anniversary of the death of Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury. He also would’ve been 70 this year.
I’ve never seen a frontman who could handle a crowd like Mercury. Boundless with energy, he never stopped moving except when he sat at the piano. Between songs he was charming and funny. But what he also did — in a non-violent way — was grab the audience by the throat and bend it to his will. There was never any doubt about who was in charge. If he told you to clap, you clapped. If he told you to sing, you sang. Not out of fear but in the inclusive, communal feel that the best concerts create.
Of course, none of that matters if the musicianship is lousy; so you need skills and playing and performance. A live show is more than just playing the songs — no matter how well — and saying “thank you” and “good night.” Getting the entire crowd on the same page can turn an OK show into something truly memorable.
Only a few frontmen have that ability. Bruce Springsteen has his we’reall-in- this- together camaraderie. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones are one of the few that can own a packed stadium. U2’s Bono can be captivating but can veer into pompous.
Tina Turner is an exploding stick of dynamite. Drummer Fred LeBlanc of Cowboy Mouth is a combination of high-octane motivational speaker and gorilla. And — no lie — Barry Manilow is one heck of an entertainer in a Las Vegas way.
In contrast, Axl Rose of Guns n’ Roses has that writhing snakiness, but he’s such a jerk onstage it doesn’t matter.
Van Halen’s David Lee Roth was fun in the early years, then got so full of himself he’s mostly obnoxious; and then there are the frontmen who sing and then don’t say anything between songs, except maybe mumble a song title.
Getting back to Queen, the band certainly isn’t deepthink music — “Bicycle Race” anyone? — so its shows were simple fun made even more entertaining by Mercury’s rapport with the audience. It’s a skill not seen very often these days. And that’s just a shame.