Recharged and Ready to Rock You

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2006

How do you replace one of rock's most beloved singers and entertainers, one remembered as outrageous, flamboyant and, yes, inimitable?

If you're guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor of Queen, you don't even try to replace Freddie Mercury, the band's powerhouse frontman and most visible member. Mercury died in 1991 at age 45 of complications from AIDS, and though the band had stopped touring five years earlier because of his illness, his passing seemed to cement the notion that a golden era of thunder and glam-rock theatricality had passed.

So there was great trepidation last year when Queen reappeared with a new frontman, Paul Rodgers. Rodgers is certainly no white-suited strutter, and his bluesy, rough-edged vocals would seem at odds with the Queen songbook. At least Rodgers's voice was familiar from his own rock classics such as "All Right Now," "Feel Like Makin' Love" and "Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy."

Some critics were thinking rock 'n' roll nightmare. Some Mercury loyalists were crying, "Blasphemy!"

On the other hand, an awful lot of fans bought tickets for last year's European tour, already memorialized in a live album and DVD, "Return of the Champions." The comeback continues for Queen + Paul Rodgers, as the tour is billed, with a stop at MCI (soon-to-be Verizon) Center on Thursday. Apparently, a kind of magic continues.

If May was ever worried, he's not letting on. "I don't really feel fear about this kind of thing," May said recently from England. "I feel very comfortable with Paul and the band. I feel it's a real band. I wouldn't be leaving my comfortable home to do this if I didn't feel confident and there was really something worthwhile to be done out there."

Which includes, May suggests, rectifying what he calls "this gaping hole in Queen's history. We kind of grew up in the states as a band, but there was a disconnection somewhere around [the early '80s] where we became current everywhere in the world except the states."

Queen slowly built a following here, beginning with the band's 1973 debut single, the May-penned "Keep Yourself Alive." Thanks to "Bohemian Rhapsody," the first headlining tour came two years later (including a show at the Kennedy Center), and the group built up to arena-level shows before Mercury's increasingly flamboyant stage presence and the band's dip into disco proved disconcerting to American fans who preferred their rock straight-up. Queen's final American tour was in 1982.

"I remember Freddie saying, 'I'll have to [expletive] die before we get back to the states and play the way we should do,' " May recalls, adding: "We were doing ever greater things everywhere else, conquering new territories like South America and Japan and Australia and the whole of Europe, becoming this stadium entity. It was blazing new trails.

"So there was this dream in the back of our minds, someday we'll take it back to the states, and of course it never happened with Freddie. It was a great sadness."

By the way, May is not kidding about feeling no pressure to leave his comfortable home in Surrey. Queen was one of the first bands to take control of its masters and management early in its career and has always benefited from substantial ongoing catalogue sales, licensing of songs and so forth. Plus they had sold about 150 million albums worldwide. That may explain why bassist John Deacon, who retired soon after Mercury's death, was listed just last year in the Financial Times as the 777th richest Brit. Until the current tour, the biggest heritage celebration had been "We Will Rock You," the Queen musical created in 2002 by Ben Elton. In London, where it's still playing the West End, the show has been seen by more than 2 million people, and there are productions in Germany, Australia and Spain, upcoming openings in Johannesburg and Zurich, and a likely road show in the United States.

Meanwhile, the real thing is hitting the road with Rodgers, offering a compendium of Queen classics and Rodgers hits from his days leading Free and Bad Company.

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