“God Save the Queen” is the British national anthem. If Queen, the British rock band, had an international anthem, it might be called “Thank God for the Movies.”
First, there was “Wayne’s World” in 1992, and that indelible scene of Wayne, Garth and their friends crammed into an old AMC Pacer banging their heads to a cassette of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” That was a year after Queen singer Freddie Mercury had died and six years after the band’s final tour. Welcome back to the top of the charts, with a song recorded in 1975.
Then last year came the blockbuster biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which grossed more than $1 billion worldwide and led to four Oscars, including best actor for an American who didn’t even try to sing like the incomparable Mercury (whose original vocals were dubbed in).
Queen is now bigger than ever — especially in the United States, which never embraced the quartet the way Europe did. Like the Beatles, Queen is having a massive afterlife. Unlike the Fab Four, though, Queen still tours as Queen, with two original members, three hired guns and 2009 “American Idol” runner-up Adam Lambert on lead vocals.
Saturday’s Queen concert at Xcel Energy Center sold out faster than you can ask “Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?” Even though this is Lambert’s third tour with the band since 2014, it felt different this time. Queen’s enviable catalog of hits has remained popular, but the biopic brought out the personalities in the band, especially lead guitarist Brian May. And he, not Lambert, was the star of Saturday’s show.
Whenever May stepped forward to take a solo, he received a tremendous ovation from the more than 16,000 fans, both the long-timers and young first-timers. Lambert was careful to let May dominate the catwalk extending from the stage. In fact, there were only a few times when Lambert hit the runway without May. The singer lounging atop a gleaming motorcycle on a rotating platform for “Bicycle Race” was the height of camp.
May sat by himself at the end of the runway, plucking a 12-string acoustic guitar singing “Love of My Life.” A song featured in the biopic, it felt more meaningful this time than two years ago when Queen played in St. Paul because we now know the backstory.
Last time, Lambert was more of a look-at-me-now ham, wearing delightfully garish outfits and carrying on like he was auditioning for a drag show without a drag costume. This time, his outfits were wonderfully sparkly (gold lamé with ruffled shirt, black leather jacket with rhinestone chains and spiked shoulders, bejeweled robe with a crown, etc.), but his stage manner seemed more natural.
When Lambert, 37, offered rockers like “Now I’m Here” and “Seven Seas of Rhye,” it felt like an actor portraying a rock star. He doesn’t get lost in what he’s singing; he seems to be thinking about what he’s doing. However, when Lambert interpreted Queen’s ballads, pop tunes and epic Broadwayesque selections, he totally owned it.
Bathed in a rainbow of lasers, he belted “Who Wants To Live Forever” like it was the 11 o’clock number of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. He soared with a rich, robust vibrato on “The Show Must Go On” as if it were the theme song of the tour. He found an impossibly high, Mercury-rising note on “Somebody to Love,” the perfect combination of passion and panache. And he totally channeled Mercury in an apt way on “Bohemian Rhapsody” without trying to replace the legend he dubbed “irreplaceable.”
Lambert demonstrated remarkable vocal and stylistic range, screaming like Robert Plant on “Tie Your Mother Down,” exchanging vocal yelps and moans with comparable sounds from May’s guitar on “I Want It All” and emulating Elvis Presley on the rockabilly romp “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (complete with the best Elvis pompadour since Chris Isaak, with an extra touch of glitter).
Founding Queen drummer Roger Taylor, 70, had his moments to shine, fervently trading vocals with Lambert on the Queen/David Bowie hit “Under Pressure” and essaying the dense prog-rock “I’m in Love with My Car,” a tune that was a running joke in the biopic.
But the night belonged to May, a soft-spoken nerd who earned a Ph.D. in his spare time. Although the 72-year-old with the long silver ringlets looks as if he might have stepped out of an AARP version of “Spinal Tap,” he managed to elevate every song with either brief or expansive guitar passages. At one point, surrounded by a galaxy of stars and planets on video screens, he unleashed an 11-minute instrumental that sounded like his doctoral dissertation in astrophysics delivered through his guitar.
The briskly paced 130-minute show featured brief appearances by Mercury on film, notably leading the thrilled crowd in a call-and-response of his patented “ay-oh” chant for the first encore. With a taste of Mercury, plenty of hits, a couple of deep cuts, a classy production (including royal boxes for VIP fans onstage) and “movie stars” who came alive, Queen ruled once again.
At show’s end, as a recorded version of “God Save the Queen” was broadcast, the three sidemen took a bow, then Lambert did a theatrical curtsy, and finally May and Taylor stepped forward together to a prolonged thunderous reaction that felt like the American equivalent of proclaiming “Long live Queen.”