04-26-1992 - Freddie Tribute - The Times - London
There were several points during last Monday's Freddie Mercury Tribute concert at Wembley when you couldn't help wondering what the man himself would have made of it.
Stadium events, as anybody who saw Queen performing at one will confirm, were very much Freddie's thing and not simply because he was a larger-than-life character with a wacky line in wardrobe. Mercury had a perfect grasp of the first law of al fresco mega-gigs, which states that the music, the lights, the sound and all the rest can only take full effect as long as a charismatic front-person firmly controls the centrestage.
This becomes even more true when an all-star line-up is involved. Bob Geldof is the principal reason why Live Aid will be remembered long after other globally televised spectaculars, such as the two Mandela shows, have been forgotten. And although it had been billed as a bigger, more televisually sophisticated and statistically amazing version of the 1985 benefit for starving Ethiopians, on the day, the Mercury tribute "for Aids awareness" generally paled by comparison.
The lack of a compelling compere was one problem. While it was perfectly appropriate that surviving Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor should host the evening, both seemed to have graduated from the "Hello London!" school of on-stage repartee. The talk was mainly of "great friends of ours" and "having a good time tonight". Cheerfulness was all. From what his old partners had to say about it, you might have thougt that Freddie's absence that night was due to a temporary indisposition.
Aids being the complicated and depressing subject it is, most of the acts that flitted on and off the Wembley stage chose not to mention the theme of the concert at all. For the hard rock bands which opened the show, singing about safe sex is pretty awkward anyway, a bit like extolling the virtues of shandy. Guns N' Roses duly hollered on about a place called Paradise City, where it was by no means clear whether the girls carried condoms in their handbags; and Def Leppard led a rally call of Let's Get Rocked, whih seemed blissfully unaware that anything as unpleasant as Aids might impinge on a man's urgent need for casual sex.
A cajun stomp from Bob Geldof and a nonsense number from Spinal Tap reduced the testosterone count somewhat. But it was the funk metal band Extreme that turned in the most convincing performance of the first half, with a well-crafted medley of Queen songs, nicely rounded off with their acoustic ballad, Love of My Life. A few more quiet moments like this would not have gone amiss in a four-and-a-half hour show largely given over to monotonously hard rocking.
By the time the remaining three-quarters of Queen took to the stage to perform a selection of their greatest hits with a succession of superstar guest vocalists, we had already heard a lot of these songs at least once. Delays in turning round the support bands had been filled with about 40 minutes of old Queen videos.
To make the repetition worse, it soon became apparent that the job of covering for Freddie was no pushover. If this had been an audition, Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, Paul Young and Seal would all have failed. None of them could reproduce the sustained trumpet blasts of sound that were Mercury's vocal trademark; and to endure Zucchero struggling through Las Palabras de Amor was to appreciate just how far Freddie deviated from the gravelly R&B standard of his peers.
Things picked up with the arrival on stage of Lisa Stansfield. Not only had she gone to the trouble of dressing up as the housewife from hell portrayed by Mercury in a video of I Want To Break Free, she could actually carry the tune. As Liza Minnelli proved in her brilliant finale rendition of We Are the Champions, Freddie was a cabaret diva in trousers. Well, sometimes anyway.
The androgynous pairing of Annie Lennox and David Bowie handled Under Pressure well, although Bowie's attempts to address the larger issues of the evening very nearly grounded it in farce. He began by breezily recalling the promiscuous camaraderie of glam rock in the early 1970s "When we all slept with the same people" and ended up on bended knee grimly reciting the Lord's Prayer for a friend who had Aids.
Not even the address at half-time by a glittering, gibbering Elizabeth Taylor had prepared us for this. But gauche as it was, Bowie's gesture did at least add an emotional component to the proceedings that Queen's music alone only supplied at at one point, during Days Of Our Lives one of Mercury's last songs, sensitively done here as a duet by Stansfield and George Michael. If the Great Pretender had left us with a few more numbers as heartfelt as this, we wouldn't have missed his entertaining presence half so acutely last Monday night.
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