Tribute bands can be such a maddening experience. When they’re good… or even great, it’s either because they’re expert mimickers, or because they take the original material and spin it in such an oblique way that you discover new things to love about songs you’ve listened to only a few thousand times before, and thought you had already heard all that could possibly be gleamed from them.
But when they’re bad… they’re embarrassing. Or lousy. Or tired and lame. Think every low-rent Beatles “tribute” act you’ve seen, or a Michael Jackson impersonator at some D-rate Vegas showroom WAY off the strip. Ugh. And then you’re left wondering why you paid for this when it would have been way cheaper queuing up some of the original tracks at home on Spotify while drinking your own mid-shelf liquor. Or better yet, somebody else’s!
So yeah… tribute bands. I’m not the biggest fan in the world. The last time I saw a KISS tribute band — and it’s difficult enough being a fan of the originals! — the Paul Stanley guy looked to be some pudgy 54 year old dude with jowls and sciatica, while the Gene must have started taking bass lessons 30 minutes before the show started. ROCK!!! Ugh. But when they’re great, they’re utterly transcendent. If you’ve ever heard Seu Jorge’s acoustic, Brazilian-Portuguese take on David Bowie tunes (from the incredible The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou soundtrack), you know what I’m talking about. But in his case, those are covers, not tributes.
Anyway, when a tribute is great, it’s mesmerizing. I’ve waxed poetically about how much I enjoy The Fab Faux every time they’re in town (you can check out my concert review here). I also liked The Australian Pink Floyd show quite a bit as well, although I had issues with their setlist (*FOUR* songs from the Roger Waters-less 80s era? REALLY? Sheesh…) But let’s face it, that’s The Beatles and Pink Floyd. If you’re remotely good at your presentation and stagecraft, the quality of the songs will carry you through into the Win Column.
But Queen… well that’s another story. And it has nothing to do with the greatness of their music.
Queen is another of my Top 10 favorite bands, mostly because of their entirely over-the-top gonzo wtf awesomesauce explosive musical huzzahness. Take, for example, their 1978 album Jazz (which is my personal favorite). What I like about the album — what I love about the album — is how it’s gleefully structured like some bombastic cross-genre Broadway show, absurdities and all: exotic (Mustapha), hard rocking (Fat Bottomed Girls, Dead On Time), gleeful power pop (If You Can’t Beat Them), playing-to-the-back-of-the-theater exhibitionism (Let Me Entertain You), funky-operatic (Bicycle Race), ’40s-styled swing (Dreamers Ball), ’70s Broadway rock opera (Don’t Stop Me Now), self-reflective poor-me’ism balladry (Jealousy, Leaving Home Aint Easy), new-wavish disco (Fun It), and then all wrapped up with the sultry callbacks of More of that Jazz.
That’s a metric ton of stylistic variations and gross excess in 45 minutes, and I love almost every second of it. Well, maybe not In Only Seven Days, which kinda sucks, but if you’re favorite albums don’t have at least one song you skip, they’re not worth crap in a handbag (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, anyone? Or most of Pet Sounds?) Anyway, my point being this: if you’re going to deliver a Queen tribute, you have to not only run the gamut, you have to SELL it. You need to thrill, kill, and Cruella de Ville the entire freakin’ auditorium.
And whoever you got doing Freddie Mercury has to be SPOT FREAKIN’ ON.
When Boots and I caught Gary Mullen & The Works performing One Night of Queen at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse, I honestly had no real idea what to expect. A cheesy tribute show? Some guy lip-syncing Queen tunes in front of a multimedia display? Dancers? Jugglers? Bird calls? Nothing. I went in cold, with zero expectations. And perhaps that worked to my advantage, because both of us found the show to be absolutely outstanding . We were completely caught up in the music, the performances, everything.
Just a quick bit of background here: singer Gary Mullen won the 2000 “Stars in Their Eyes”, a UK TV talent competition. His Freddie Mercury impersonation won massive raves. In 2002 he formed Gary Mullen & The Works and took the music of Queen on the road. They’ve since played hundreds upon hundreds of shows around the world since then. Performing along with Gary on vocals is Billy Moffat (bass), Malcolm Gentles (keyboards), Jonathan Evans (drums), and David Brockett (guitars). The band is tight, precise, and anything but stiff. They honor the music of Queen by not slavishly reproducing it note-for-note, but by finding the base foundation of what makes every song great and reproducing it live with playful energy and infectious spirit.
For instance, Brian May is my personal all time favorite rock guitarist. When it comes to sheer musicality, inimitable tone, versatility, and inventiveness, no one in my book can touch Dr. May. Guitarist David Brockett plays a Red Special (May’s signature guitar model) throughout the program but he isn’t simply copying May’s lines. He’s performing them. The essence of May’s tone is there and he honors it, but he never forgets this is a live performance for a second. Neither does anyone else in the band. They might do 150 performances a year, but you’d never know it from how much energy they pour into the music.
Which brings us to the 800 pound gorilla in the room. How good does Gary Mullen ‘do’ Freddie Mercury? Does he do the legendary singer and frontman justice? Well if you take a good hard look at Mullen, he doesn’t really look like Freddie Mercury. Which is to be expected; if you had taken a good hard look at Freddie Mercury back in the day, HE wouldn’t have looked like Freddie Mercury either. The point I’m making here is that Mullen absolutely excels in what he does, because he captures Mercury’s spirit in ways beyond just physical resemblance. He has the general look down pat: Mullen’s lithe, athletic frame, slicked back hair and mustachioed visage are reminiscent of Mercury’s famed stage appearance, but Mullen imbues his performance with Mercury’s enthusiastic zeal; his energy, his passion, his equal parts PT Barnum, Phoebos Apollo, Miss Thang, and Sonic Volcanic Eruption, and those unmistakable Mercurial moves. Gallivanting about the stage shirtless in black leather pants, Mullen is an incessant panther of a showman. He’s come here to sell you his body, and you’re buying some good merchandise.
Vocally, he nails it as well. The acoustics at the Parker were a bit murky for the first few songs, but soon after someone tweaked the levels, we were treated to much of Mullen’s range and ability in better clarity. I don’t think anyone could ever do what Freddie did, but Mullen as damn close as one could imagine or expect.
Overall, the show was spirited, intense, energetic, entertaining, and yes, rockin’ rather hard, thank you very much. The look and feel of the show was reminiscent of the 1979 live album Live Killers. Like the album, he show opened with the crashing thunderstorm overture that breaks into the fast, intro version of We Will Rock You. There’s a medley that starts with Death On Two Legs and Killer Queen, only this version goes directly into Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy. There’s an extended guitar solo from the live Brighton Rock that thankfully doesn’t go on for 12 minutes. The operatic sections of Bohemian Rhapsody are taken from the recording. And it all ends with We Will Rock You, We Are The Champions, and God Save The Queen. Even the stage and lighting scheme hearkened back to the album cover.
Crowd reaction was fairly enthusiastic, rising to a near crescendo by show’s end. Mullen was expert at getting everyone on their feet, dancing, singing, and clapping, even sparing no expense at calling out a pair of lifeless sourpusses in the front row. By the time they broke into a spirited Another One Bites the Dust as the fourth song, they had the audience in the palms of their hands. They had won over a crowd that pretty much had no idea what to expect, but were more than willing to partake of it.
Speaking of the setlist, it was a good mix of popular hits and fan favorites, but by the very necessities of a tribute show, there wasn’t anything in terms of deep cuts. No Tenement Funster or Nevermore or even Dreamer’s Ball. And that’s fine. You go too deep, you lose most of the crowd. Here’s the set for the evening:
- We Will Rock You (fast version)
- Tie Your Mother Down
- Somebody To Love
- Another Ones Bites The Dust
- Under Pressure
- Death On Two Legs / Killer Queen / Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy
- I Want To Break Free
- Bicycle Race
- Guitar solo / Brighton Rock outro
- Don’t Stop Me Now
- Flash Gordon Theme (recorded intro leading into band jam)
- Now I’m Here
- Keep Yourself Alive
- Fat Bottomed Girls
- Love Of My Life
- Jailhouse Rock
- Bohemian Rhapsody
- Hammer To Fall
- Crazy Little Thing Called Love
- We Will Rock You
- We Are The Champions
- God Save The Queen (recorded outro)
We both really loved the show, coming in with a casual attitude and leaving enthused and excited. They performed most of Boots’s favorite Queen tune (Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy) and, while I yearned to hear The Prophet’s Song or Save Me, I had zero complaints. If you’re a Queen fan, One Night of Queen is worth every penny of admission. Even if you’re not, the show is still a great big stone cold crazy kick in the pants.