It is perhaps the greatest compliment to Freddie Mercury that so much about Queen’s current live show feels like old news.
The veteran British rock band -- or half of it, anyway -- appeared Thursday night at the Forum with Adam Lambert, the former “American Idol” contestant, more or less playing the role of Mercury, who died in 1991. Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor have revived the Queen brand before, touring and recording an album with Paul Rodgers of Bad Company. (Queen’s original bassist, John Deacon, hasn’t taken part in any of the recent reunions.)
But the peacocking Lambert, an avowed Mercury devotee, shares much more of a spirit with the group’s famously theatrical frontman, and he seems to have inspired May and Taylor to boost the spectacle factor for their summer arena tour. Thursday’s concert, billed as a performance by Queen + Adam Lambert, had lasers, multiple stages and a video camera attached to May’s guitar that he used to show off his virtuosic technique; there was also, inevitably, Lambert’s array of splashy costumes, including a leopard-print suit and a pair of spiked leather sleeves.
Yet none of this pageantry was pushing any boundaries that Mercury didn’t push decades ago. Queen’s gigs in the 1970s are as responsible as any for the exaggerated state of the modern arena concert; they’re what led to multimedia blowouts by the likes of Muse and Lady Gaga, who’s said to have taken her stage name from Queen’s song “Radio Ga Ga.” As a result, so much of what seemed designed to wow the crowd at the Forum merely met a reasonable level of expectation. It was par for the course.
Given the potential for creating something new with Lambert, an artist who’s demonstrated a distinct point of view in his own work, the show was also a disappointment, at least for those seeking more than rote nostalgia.
You caught a glimpse of Lambert’s personality -- the sexy-goofy charisma that made him such a sensation on “Idol” -- in his limited stage banter, as when he dedicated “Fat Bottomed Girls” to a portion of the audience he described with a delightfully unprintable epithet. He was good too in “Killer Queen,” which he sang while reclining on a purple velvet settee, his eyelashes fluttering with lovable mischief.
As a singer, though, Lambert made no impression on familiar Queen songs like “Somebody to Love,” “Tie Your Mother Down” and “Another One Bites the Dust”; he wasn’t telling us anything about the music we didn’t already know.
Did he sound great scaling the Everest-size choruses of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” which closed Thursday’s show? Sure. But you know who else sounds great doing that? Freddie Mercury on Queen’s 1977 album “News of the World,” which I called up on my iPhone on the drive home.
But maybe Lambert is not to be blamed here. Midway through the concert, the singer disappeared for a long, dreary sequence in which May and Taylor performed as old footage of Mercury played on an enormous video screen at the rear of the stage. Taylor’s rendition of “These Are the Days of Our Lives” was especially egregious -- an admission, it seemed, that Queen’s glory days have passed.
But then why launch this pale imitation in the first place? May and Taylor are presumably raking in money from “We Will Rock You,” the Queen jukebox musical that recently closed after a 12-year run in London’s West End (and will arrive this month at the Ahmanson Theatre on a U.S. tour).
That suggests the two are in it for more artistic reasons -- except that this production seemed determined not to alter the idea of Queen as it has existed since Mercury’s death.
The group’s rendition of its signature hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” said it all: There was Lambert, belting out the introductory portion of the complicated song, doing the job he’d apparently been hired to do. Then the stage went dark and once again our eyes were directed toward the screen, where Mercury took over for the operatic section -- a humiliating demotion for the younger man attempting to honor his idol’s legacy.
Queen is dead; long live -- no, wait, let’s keep it that way.
Twitter: @mikaelwoodCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times