Leo Breebaart's Review
What follows is a very long review of the Freddie Mercury tribute / AIDS Awareness concert held on 20 April in Wembley Stadium, London. (I wasn't there, I just followed it live on the BBC).
During the second half there was additional anonymous musical help from two female background singers, one keyboard player, and one multi-functional male person who played guitar or shook shakers or sang background etc. as the situation warranted,
Roger Taylor provided (sometimes badly needed) vocal background assistance for many of the songs, and Tommy Iomi was pretty much on all the timeas a second guitarist next to Brian May.
Overall sound quality was quite uneven: MetallicA for instance had excellent sound (because they were the first?), but the rest of the evening most guitars were consistently mixed too soft. Bowie's sax was also inaudible,vocal microphones regularly kicked in many seconds too late, and at times it felt as if the sound people were simply not paying much attention. Other than that, the actual sound itself was above average and an enormous improvement on e.g. Live Aid.
Overall picture quality was excellent, but then I watched directly on the BBC. I saw later that the Dutch channel had a much worse, distorted picture.
Overall direction was competent, solid and unexciting. About the usual for such mass concerts. Thankfully few 'cute' audience shots, or blathering BBC presentors -- the focus was (quite correct IMHO) on the artists.
Overall organization and stage directing was truly excellent for this type of hideously large enterprise. There were no technical glitches or problems to speak of. The live connection to South Africa went without a hitch (as did the U2 link -- big deal, it was pre-taped), and the acts followed each other quickly and without unnecessary delay. 'Preaching' and AIDS-awareness items were evenly distributed among the musical main course. I think the point got across without either boring people out of their skulls with speeches and talking, or trivializing the AIDS question in favour of the musical happening.
Overall musical quality was way, way, way above average. The weak vocalists (see below) were clearly outnumbered by the excellent singers, musically everything stood like a brick house (much credit should go to Roger Taylor for being the pulsating centre of the second set).
Nobody forgot their lines (Robert Plant had his pasted to the floor, of course!), most everyone came across as confident and well-rehearsed (remember Sinead during The Wall?), yet spontaneous.
My overall impression of the entire show was positive. I simply enjoyed every second of it. There was some great music, some exciting and strange combinations of artists performing songs that have been lifelong favourites of mine. At the same time it was an honest tribute to Freddie Mercury by most of the people involved, and as I said before: I don't think the issue of AIDS was neglected or trivialized. I think everyone who knows a little about them will realize that people like Elton John and David Bowie were simply not there to boost their egos or their album sales, and I think that that was what made this tribute, especially the second half, so honest and special.
This aura of sincerity, I might add, was also something that I felt was sometimes lacking during e.g. Live Aid or the Free Nelson Mandela festival or, God help us, the Wall event. Sure, everybody is against hunger and against racism and against war. No big deal. But it is quite unfortunate that even today it takes a bit of courage to stand up and speak out in support for AIDS victims, those nasty gay drug addicts. I'm not saying all these artists are martyrs or heroes for participating, and I'm not saying that everyone had pure, unselfish motives. Neither am I accusing Live Aid artists of the opposite. I am just trying to explain why I am feeling so satisfied and uncynical about this whole event, while Live Aid left me feeling quite skeptical and critical at times.
To return to the music: the highlights of the evening were for me the Extreme set (the only real tribute during the first half of the concert), the 'Under Pressure' duet between Annie Lennox and David Bowie (I had not before realized how horribly prophetic the lyrics to that song seem to speak about AIDS: "Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night" never had more truth), and finally George Michael's 'Somebody To Love'. Lord knows this man has many faults, but he delivered this song flawlessly and with (IMHO) heartfelt sincerity.
Low points were thankfully far less frequent, but included Robert Plant's singing, Def Leppards insipid performance, and the totally inappropriate and irrelevant U2 song.
My favourite moment of the entire evening was seeing Elton John together with Axl Rose, a totally absurd combination that had me rolling on the floor.
If you are still not tired of my musings by now, here's the set list again, with some detailed remarks, criticisms and praise thrown in.
** First Half: Individual Bands **
1] METALLICA - Enter Sandman
- Sad But True
- Nothing Else Matters
Good openers in a musical sense - they played a tight set ('Enter Sandman' sounds even better live than on the record) and had excellent sound. But what exactly did this have to do with Queen? They did not even do 'Stone Cold Crazy', and the presence of two recent singles momentarily made me fear the worst with respect to the integrity of the evening.
2] EXTREME - Queen Medley: Mustapha, [End Of] Bo Rap, Keep Yourself Alive, I Want To Break Free, Fat Bottomed Girls, Bicycle Race, Another One Bites The Dust, We Will Rock You, Stone Cold Crazy, Radio Gaga, [Even More End Of] Bo Rap
- Love Of My Life
- More Than Words
I cannot praise these guys enough, because they really understood what it all was about. No plugging their singles, no replaying their own successes. Instead they simply became an anonymous cover-band trying to emulate their heroes -- and not a bad job they did of it either.
Opening the medley with Mustapha was a master stroke, and the Extreme/Everley treatment of 'Love of My Life' brought new luster to the song. Their own 'More Than Words' was really just an afterthought, and they even cut it in half. I only wish every act in the first half had their enthusiasm and sincerity.
3] DEF LEPPARD - Animal
- Let's Get Rocked
- Now I'm Here [ Brian May joins on guitar ]
Def Leppard's first live appearance in a number of years, and their first one with new guitarist Vivian Campbell (from Dio, a.o.) replacing the recently departed Steve Clark.
They sucked small time. Not that they were that bad, but the set was completely devoid of enthusiasm or fun, and Joe Elliot did not even bother to take the gum from his mouth as they played their big hit from a few years back, followed by what they hope will be their big new current hit. It was *really* uninspired.
After that not even "Now I'm here" (ok, so at least they *tried*) could save them. Please note that I am a big Def Leppard fan, and that in particular I think they are a *very* good live band. But their hearts were not in it tonight, and it showed.
4] BOB GELDOLF - Too Late God [ co-written by Freddie Mercury ]
A folk song that Saint Bob co-wrote with Freddie a long time ago. Nothing remarkable.
5] SPINAL TAP - The Majesty Of Rock (?)
Not having seen the movie, I don't really 'get' the joke about these guys, but I suppose that's my fault. They played better than I actually expected, but I didn't think they were very funny.
6] U2 - The End Of The World (?)
What the fuck was this all about? Pre-taped from the night before, this was simply a U2-in-concert clip. Where was the connection with AIDS, with Freddie? U2 should be ashamed of themselves, this reeks of commercialism and self-promotion.
7] GUNS 'N ROSES - Paradise City
- Knocking On Heaven's Door
Another band not doing anything that was at all connected to Queen or AIDS (or were they implying that Freddie was knock knock knocking on Heaven's door?). But Axl was quite well-voiced (by his standards, that is) and the set was enjoyable. Slash's guitar was almost inaudible, dammit.
8] MANGO GROOVE - Special Star
In South Africa another AIDS awareness concert was being held, and this was a quick Satellite link to that concert. Unfortunately, the song was unremarkable in the extreme: bland western pop music with some mildly interesting folk-elements thrown in. The drums and percussion were absolutely horrible (and, to my surprise, taken care of by two white members of the racially mixed ensemble. Big, big, big mistake, especially on the African continent! It's like Sammy Hagar playing guitar in Van Halen).
** Second Half: Queen - Freddie + guests **
1] Tie Your Mother Down [ Vocals: Brian May and Joe Elliot (Def Lep) Guitar: Slash (G 'N R) ]
Joe Elliot redeeming himself slightly with a decent vocal to this traditional Queen opening song. Nice fireworks between Slash and May -- what we were able to hear of it, that is.
2] I Want It All [ Vocals: Roger Daltrey (Who?) Guitar: Tommy Iomi (Black Sabbath) ]
Two surprises for me. I had not known Daltrey would participate, and Tommy Iomi must be a close friend of May's, since I doubt that more than a handful of people in the entire stadium knew who he was. But I did, and it was nice to see him helping out here.
3] Las Palabras De Amor [ Vocals: Zucchero Forniciari ]
Is looks like Joe Cocker, it sounds like Joe Cocker, but it is Zucchero Forniciari, Italy's latest superstar. Solid performance on an absolutely lousy Queen song.
4] Hammer To Fall [ Vocals: Gary Cherone (Extreme) ]
Another one on my list of not-so-very-favourite Queen songs. Gary Cherone again giving an excellent performance.
5] Stone Cold Crazy [ Vocals: James Hatfield (MetallicA) ]
Ok, finally. Not bad either, not bad at all.
6] Innuendo [ Croaking: Robert Plant (Led Zep) ]
Oh boy. On the one hand, if there is *anybody* suitable for singing this song, it's Robert Plant -- he could have *written* this one. On the other hand: he is AWFUL!! It was so painful to watch. Any moment I expected him to forget the lyrics (I have seen him mess up 'Stairway to Heaven' -- I don't think he is capable of remembering the words to 'Happy birthday to you'), but after a while I noticed that a kind soul had pasted them on the floor, which explained Robert's frequent downwards squinting.
7] Thank You (?) [ Ditto ]
8] Crazy Little Thing Called Love [ Ditto ]
Or rather: "Cwazy little thing called love", as Robert kept singing it. This song was a bullseye, and lots of fun for everybody, the audience included ("READY FREDDIE???!!")
9] Too Much Love Will Kill You [ Brian May solo on keyboards & vocals ]
A touching little tune, bravely carried by May (who is of course neither an experienced (live) vocalist, nor a keyboard player of origin), dedicated to Freddie's memory.
10] Radio Gaga [ Vocals: Paul Young ]
I suspect the record company insisted on having Paul Young here, because once again I fail to see the Queen connection. And unlike Seal and Lisa Stansfield, Paul Young is a has-been who is not a representative of the new generation.
He is a very sympathetic guy though, and really a good singer, but tonight he was positively lousy. He valiantly tried, and I really think he felt rotten about his bad performance himself as well.
11] Who Wants To Live Forever [ Vocals: Seal ]
Another *very* bad vocalists, but here I fear that the problem is more structural than incidental as with Paul Young. Seal simply sings bad, and again the connection with Queen was not very obvious.
12] I Want To Break Free [ Vocals & Hoover: Lisa Stansfield ]
Some comic relief as Lisa, a *very* pretty young soul singer, entered the stage disguised as Freddie disguised as housewife, complete with vacuum cleaner, celebrating the controversial 'I want to break free' video clip. Only a fake Mercury moustache was missing to make the act complete.
She sang very well, though her voice is a bit too light for the song. As with Tracy Chapman on Nelson Mandela, I keep asking myself what it must be like for a musical newcomer to suddenly have to perform live for more than 70.000 people. Personally, I think I would die of nerves.
13] Under Pressure [ Vocals: Annie Lennox and David Bowie ]
Another highlight. Bowie looked immaculately cool, as usual. Annie was outrageously dressed in some semi-medieval huge ballroom dress with a black face masked painted on. Together they formed a perfect contrast, sang a splendid, chilling version of the song, and at the same time captured the typically Mercurian aspect of bombast and kitsch.
14] All The Young Dudes [ Vocals: Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople) Guitar: Mick Ronson (Spiders From Mars) Sax & Background Vocals: David Bowie ]
15] Heroes [ Vocals: David Bowie ]
By now the musicians were *really* steaming, and these two songs got inspired performances.
16] '39 [ Vocals: George Michael (Wham) ]
17] Those Were The Days [ Vocals: Lisa Stansfield and George Michael ]
George Michael is a pretentious jerk who often writes horrible songs, but I will never forget how he was the *only* one during the Nelson Mandela concert to not sing his own songs and hits, but to make a very quiet statement by choosing to sing a number of black soul songs.
Tonight again, he managed to come across as sincere and honest, and while I still don't care much for his 'dramatic' singing style, he did really well.
18] Somebody To Love [ Vocals: George Michael + Choir ]
And this particular song he did so good that I am even preparing to forgive him for murdering 'Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me'.
19] Bohemian Rhapsody [ Vocals & Keyboards & Hair Piece: Elton John Vocals: Axl (G 'N R) ]
Speaking about Elton John... Bo Rap was not quite the highlight of the concert for me. It just lacked something, and Axl's microphone was turned on too late, thereby ruining his entrance. Pity.
The orchestral part of the song was done, as always, by playing the tape.
20] The Show Must Go On [ Vocals: Elton John ]
Here Elton really hit his stride, and made a mediocre Queen song into a great one. I am sorry: I know it's completely irrelevant, but I *have* to say something about his toupet or his hair fusion, or whatever. He looked totally ridiculous, a bit like Benny Hill in a bad sketch, and I kept expecting the wind to blow the hair piece off. Can't the man afford something better?
21] We Will Rock You [ Vocals: Axl ]
Pretty obvious choice of course, and pretty much what you'd expect.
22] We Are The Champions [ Liza Minelli + everybody ]
The last song, sad enough. Freddie adored Liza, so it was really great that she was also here. She sang horribly bad of course, but by this time it hardly mattered much anymore. A fitting finale for a fine concert, and the only time I have ever heard (and probably the only time I ever will hear) that final, "...of the world" end to the song.
Freddie's death last year hit me a bit harder than I had thought it would. Writing this overlong review is something I did more for myself than for you people out there reading it.
See it as my particular form of tribute: everything else I can say about Mercury or his music has already been said before, or will be a silly cliche. But later I can reread this review and perhaps recall the hurt and loss I felt when yet another piece of the Music died -- and for such a stupid reason too.
The Freddie Mercury tribute was a fitting, appropriate farewell for this brilliant man. His music *will* live on for a very long time, I am sure. Queen is dead. Long live Queen.