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  • Queen + Adam Lambert
  • Rogers Arena
  • Vancouver, July 10

Call me a cynic, or a stickler, or unimaginative, but it’s been difficult for me to see the point of going to a Queen concert fronted by someone who isn’t Freddie Mercury. Yes, I know, Brian May; yes, Roger Taylor – the band’s co-founding guitarist and drummer, respectively – are there, the soul of Queen if not the face of it (and for May’s part, maybe the hair). But the idea of seeing Queen with anyone but Mercury at centre stage seemed not just wrong, but sad. Not as in pathetic – a money-grabbing exercise in nostalgia (but that too). But really just sad. On a night out, do I really want to take in a pretender to the throne while also confronting the terrible loss of such a remarkable talent? To be clear, I did not wrestle with this concept in general – the live singer stepping in for the dead one – but I outright dismissed it. As Mercury sang on Queen and David Bowie’s anti-capitalism anthem Under Pressure, Why? Why? Whyyyyyyyy?

Then on Wednesday in Vancouver I attended the first show of the Rhapsody Tour, with Queen and Adam Lambert. Lambert, who has parlayed his American Idol runner-up finish into a successful solo career, was there in place of Mercury, who died in 1991. Lambert has sung with Queen for several years, but the Rhapsody Tour is the band’s first since the release of the 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody, a smash success at the box office and the Academy Awards, where it won four Oscars, including best actor for Rami Malek.

And I was sold.

This was largely because of the approach. Lambert did not give us a Malek-esque Freddie Mercury imitation. He brought his own thing, his A-game stage presence, his fine voice, his infectious swagger. Even if he seemed a bit queened and preened up, he did not attempt any sort of impersonation. He was himself, and with that approach, Queen + Adam Lambert brought Freddie Mercury back to life for thousands of us – many of us old enough to have grown up listening to Queen, who actually remember first-hand seeing that incredible performance at Live Aid almost exactly 34 years ago. Some of our arena-mates were newcomer fans, thanks to the film (and, no doubt, Lambert).

Lambert, wearing a succession of sparkly, ruffled, over-the-top costumes, addressed what he called “the big pink elephant in the room” early in the night.

“I’m not Freddie Mercury. I know; it [expletive] sucks. But I could never be Freddie Mercury. Because there’s only one rock god,” he said, to the roar of the crowd. “Hear that, Freddie?”

He thanked the band and the audience for giving him the shot, and then asked the crowd to make a promise that he and the fans celebrate Freddie Mercury together.

And that’s what we got: a celebration, a tribute, an opportunity to commune and sing along to the words Mercury (and his bandmates) dreamed up. There were ghosts in the arena, but they were good ones – comforting, good company.

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May, who seems like he hasn’t aged a minute since Queen’s heyday (beyond the fact that his signature locks are now grey), received the warmest welcome and consistently the biggest roars from the crowd. His solo version of Love of My Life, delivered at the B-stage at the end of the catwalk, sounded fantastic. Another highlight was a cosmic and prolonged guitar solo during which May – who has a PhD in astrophysics – was elevated above the stage as comets whizzed by and planetary orbs whirled around him.

He also seems like an absolute gentleman. “Is it working so far?” May humbly asked the crowd after Love of My Life, explaining that it was the first night of the tour. He also paid tribute to the crew.

Then he asked the crowd to welcome to the stage Taylor, “my buddy, my brother.” And then Lambert, “the new boy in the band.”

A fun rendition of Crazy Little Thing Called Love followed. Then Taylor took on the Bowie role to Lambert’s Mercury for Under Pressure, and this was when the loss felt particularly staggering. Bowie gone, Mercury gone, and what are we left with?

Well, a legacy of genius. The bass riff on Another One Bites the Dust. The audience chanting the “find me somebody to love” backing vocals on Somebody to Love. Cellphone flashlights illuminating Rogers Arena for Love of My Life, and laser beams accompanying Don’t Stop Me Now. Even Fat Bottomed Girls – not my favourite song, but Lambert’s campy rendition with corresponding dance moves certainly won the crowd over. We were having a good time.

There were a few little bumps; first-night stuff that reminds you that these guys are human. A spotlight on Lambert too early as he was attempting one of his (many) costume changes at the side of the stage. Taylor sounded a little rough on Under Pressure. Before the encore, I think there was video of Mercury leading the crowd with his legendary “ay-oh,” but you couldn’t see it from where I was sitting. (That’s only a bump of privilege, considering I had an excellent reviewer’s seat.)

But my God, the encore that followed was rock ’n’ roll heaven: We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions, with everyone standing and singing and thumping along and swaying and waving their arms.

The high point of the night, just before the encore, was entirely predictable and still a shock of wonder. I will never stop being thrilled by the sheer genius and extraordinary innovation of Bohemian Rhapsody, never. But to hear the song performed live and to sing along with thousands of people who also knew every word was next-level. And while for much of the night the video projections were pointless, bordering on annoying, the use of the original Bohemian Rhapsody video during this performance was an inspired integration of past and present. What would Freddie Mercury have thought of the cellphones lighting up the place to his weird and amazing operatic rock song? “Nothing really matters,” we all sang. But we all know it does. Anyone can see.

Queen + Adam Lambert play Scotiabank Arena in Toronto July 28.​