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Friday, December 10, 2004
I recently had occasion to rent the DVD for the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. If you don't know what this, this was a huge concert held at Wembley Stadium in London in 1992 in honor of Freddie Mercury, the golden-voiced lead singer of Queen. It was a charity benefit with the proceeds going to HIV research (Mercury, a flamboyant bisexual, died of AIDS). But this particular charity concert, in my mind, soars above any other such concert-- anyone who plans to get the DVD of the 1985 Live Aid concerts that is coming out should check out the Mercury Tribute as well.

The reason the Mercury Tribute worked so well is that it managed to both encapsule what was so great about Mercury while also being a great rock concert. As I said, Mercury was a flamboyant, outsized personality who also had a huge range. Queen's records ranged from quasi-opera ("Bohemian Rapsody") to R&B ("Another One Bites the Dust") to gospel ("Somebody to Love") to hard rock ("Hammer to Fall") to rock anthem ("We Are the Champions"). Other than Freddie Mercury, there was simply nobody who could sing all that stuff. So, the surviving members of Queen decided to invite many of the best rock and pop singers in the world to sing various songs in place of Mercury. This was a wonderful tribute to Mercury, because it stressed how unique his talent was, compared him favorably to some of the best in his profession, and made the show larger than life, just as Mercury was.

But the show also worked as rock and roll, because many of the choices were inspired. Axl Rose singing "We Will Rock You". Gary Cherone, later to join Van Halen, sang "Hammer to Fall" brilliantly. Brit-popper Lisa Stansfield sang "I want to Break Free". Elton John did "The Show Must Go On". Roger Daltrey made "I Want It All" sound like a Who song. And the show closed with Liza Minelli, of all people-- who was one of Mercury's personal favorites. She sang "We Are the Champions" like she meant it.

But there are two highlights to the concert that, in my mind, rank with any concert footage in modern pop music history. The first was "Under Pressure". This was a collaberation between Queen and David Bowie that was recorded for Queen's Greatest Hits set in 1981. Bowie obviously had to be there, but who would he sing it with? They chose Annie Lennox, who wore an outrageous Annie Lennox costume and black eye makeup, and who has a wonderful piercing voice that was perfect for the song. As the song neared its climax, with the two singers singing together about how the pressures of the world could be mitigated if we gave love a chance, Lennox clung closer and closer to Bowie, digging her fingers into the back of his neck. It was a tremendous, emotional performance.

The best performance of them all is one that George Michael is justifiably proud of. "Somebody to Love" is probably one of the most difficult songs in rock and roll to sing. (Try it some time if you don't believe me.) It goes way up and way down, but at the same time, the lyrics have to be delivered fast and conversationally, not operatically. That means the singer needs both range and breath control. Mercury, of course, had both. So does Michael, though he has often wasted his beautiful voice on the most insubstantial of pop songs in his own recordings.

But at the Mercury Tribute, Michael showed us all what he can do with a good song. It sort of came out of nowhere, because he came out to sing three songs, the first two of which were second-tier Queen songs. But when he launched into "Somebody to Love", he sang his ass off. He hit every note, loud and clear, and he sang the song with a great deal of passion. He got the crowd involved; they clapped along in unison and eventually sang the last notes in the song for Michael. And at the end, he let out a Howard Dean-like "Yeah!"-- he was really having a good time. Queen guitarist Brian May cheered him at the end of the song. Michael liked the performance so much he put it on his Greatest Hits album.

If you get the chance, check out the DVD of the Mercury Tribute. Freddie Mercury was unique, and the surviving members of the band created a fitting, unique tribute to him.


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