Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A recap of The Queen Extravaganza’s Calgary show

The Queen Extravaganza had their second last tour stop here in Calgary last Monday night. My purchased tickets had been collecting dust on the fridge door since the end of March and now my brother and I were ready to see if Roger’s hype would become reality.

As we approached the front entrance to the Jack Singer Concert Hall from the street, I noticed an inordinate amount of Queen t-shirts being proudly worn. I was in uncharted territory, it seems. For me, being a Queen fan has been a fairly solitary existence with the occasional chance encounter with another rabid fan. But tonight, I really started to question whether I was the biggest Queen fan in Calgary, which is a healthy sign of how popular the band is in this part of the world I suppose.

After getting our online tickets scanned at the door, we headed into the lobby. There was absolutely no indication we were going to be patted down or strip searched for contraband technogear, which was good news because I was carrying an iPhone, a Canon SureShot, and a voice recorder to document the show.

At these kinds of events, I normally make a bee line for the merchandise table to see if I can pick up a concert program to add to my collection. Understandably, there were no QE programs nor other paper items (except for a tour poster), so I opted to buy the white two-sided Night at the Opera shirt and a QE keychain.

One of the t-shirts up for sale was the winner of the 40th Anniversary T-shirt Design Contest, which I wrote a lengthy review of here. I don’t recall any of the guests last night wearing Freddie’s Magic Years yellow jacket over their regular shirt as I did with many of the other t-shirt designs that were up for grabs. As a matter of fact, I’d be curious to know how that contest winner has been selling during the QE tour.

Prior to entering the seating bowl, an announcement was made over the PA system that the show would be starting in 20 minutes. Okay, no problem. We found our seats on the main level and observed the crowds rolling in. The age diversity amongst audience members was astounding. Grandparents. Teenagers. Twenty-somethings. Even the thirty-something family seated in front of us brought their two kids, a four-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, to the show.

I could faintly hear some synthesizer music playing in the background. At closer listen, I recognized it as the instrumental Track 13 from Made In Heaven. That’s interesting, I thought. I wonder if the 20-minute announcement regarding the start of the show would correspond to the duration of Track 13 since it is around 20 minutes as well.

Sure enough, after Freddie’s symbolic ascension into heaven as the track ends, the concert hall went dark and the familiar vocal canon from The Prophet’s Song came blasting out of the upper speakers. What a fantastic moment that was. Listening to the multilayered harmonies at that volume was stunning.

Before the crunchy guitar appears after the vocal canon segment of the song, the curtain drops and Jeff Scott Soto does a pretty solid rendition of the fast version of We Will Rock You. He then keeps the momentum going with Tie Your Mother Down.

For the next song, Now I’m Here, Yvan Pedneault takes over for Soto and while Yvan did a competent vocal job, I thought the two guitarists stole the show on this number. Their sound was meatier than Brian’s on the original recording. Brian Gresh and Tristan Avakian really brought the song to life as I thought it should be . . . grittier.

The most famous QE winner, Marc Martel, makes an appearance during the next song, Killer Queen. Up to this point, none of the singers have tried to imitate Freddie although I noticed a few subtle gestures from Soto that he has probably been doing for years since he, more than any of the other band members, has an active history with Queen, the band. Was Martel, however, going to crank up the Freddie persona? No, he didn’t, which he explained later in the show.

He followed KQ with a keyboard-based version of Love of My Life which was a refreshing take on the song because we have been so used to hearing it on an acoustic guitar as a duet over the years. To go back to the album arrangement complete with concerto-type piano work from Brandon Ethridge was a pleasant surprise.

Next, Martel swaps places with Soto for I Want It All. This song has never been a favourite of mine but again, the QE guitarists added a dimension to it that the original was lacking, in my opinion. Soto is then joined by Yvan for Bicycle Race and the two vocalists seemed to have fun bantering the lyrics back and forth. Even the duelling guitar work that Brian offers up in the original was captured nicely by Gresh and Avakian.

The unmistakable opening keyboards to I Want To Break Free signalled the next song. I was half-expecting someone to come out wearing a frock and hair rollers trying to vacuum the stage, but it was just Yvan sauntering in from stage left. I must admit, his performance on this song kickstarted the audience participation that was lacking up to this point in the show. His performance, as a matter of fact, struck me as how John Deacon might have performed it if he was ever able to sing his own songs.

Jennifer Espinoza, the only female chosen for the lineup, comes out on stage and begins singing something that I couldn’t make out initially. After a few seconds, I recognized it as March of the Black Queen, which was a total surprise. Cool, I thought. Maybe they’ll do the entire Black Side of Queen II while they’re at it. MOTBQ was a truncated version, unfortunately, as I was waiting for the best part of the song — the piano and guitar before the “Forget your singalongs and your lullabies, surrender to the city of the fireflies” bit.

Soto returns to the stage at this point for a superb rendition of Dragon Attack. Again, it’s the collaboration between the two guitarists that make it work as a live performance — each playing off of each other, just like in the original version. As an aside, I always thought that Dragon Attack was Queen’s attempt at an contemporary update to Ogre Battle. Both feature mythical beasts surrounded by intricate guitar work. I don’t think the fairy tale motif from their early days were in alignment with their ’80s identity, though.

The stage goes black once again and Freddie’s opening vocal canon to You Take My Breath Away is played until just before the piano segment with Yvan finishing off the song. This ballad is followed by another when Soto appears to do a respectable version of Save Me. And staying with The Game theme at this point, Martel re-appears with an acoustic guitar and does some muted strumming. I don’t think anyone immediately recognized the tune until his strumming turned into the opening chords of Crazy Little Thing Called Love. The whole performance reminded me of Queen’s energized appearance on Saturday Night Live back in 1982.

Then Martel did something totally unexpected, at least in my mind. He did an amusing vaudeville performance of Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon complete with the vocal sound effect as heard on the album. He even managed to pull off Freddie’s unique pronunciation of “Louvre.” And just as this song segues into I’m In Love With My Car on the album, so here it does as well when Tyler Warren, the drummer, does a pretty job with the vocals while crashing away on the drum kit. (I’m sure Roger gave him some pointers when the band rehearsed in Quebec City before the tour started.)

Finishing off the first set was another Opera tune, Bohemian Rhapsody. The vocal horsepower needed for this song required all band members to grab a mike and sing along in unison. Martel commented before the song started that he hadn’t even heard the Freddie’s magnum opus until he watched Wayne’s World. Soto took the reins for the head-banging portion of the song, sort of like Axl Rose taking over for Elton John.

Intermission — another chance to see the age diversity of the audience.
After the intermission, One Vision kicks. I think the band took a page from the Magic Years concerts when Queen used the song as an opening tune because it had a long build up ending in some heavy power chords. Yvan comes back on stage for A Kind of Magic, another fun, uptempo number that he’s is particularly good at performing as we saw earlier with I Want To Break Free.

Marc and Jennifer meet up for a spirited take on Don’t Stop Me Now. I can’t say Martel nailed the opening vocal melody as accurately as he should have, but overall it was pretty good. The video screens behind the band were now being used to greater effect as lyrics to the song were being displayed as the song played on. I think Mark Fisher, their stage designer, should have played Freddie’s 65th birthday Google Doodle since it is still fresh on most fans’ minds. That would have been a fun, contemporary update on the song’s performance.

The baseline riff from Under Pressure starts up and the audience went wild. Marc and Jeff assume their Freddie Mercury–David Bowie personas and the duet begins. The video footage playing on the back screens were from the song’s official music video. (As an aside, I half-expected both of them to pull out Kermit puppets, but it didn’t happen.)

Jennifer comes on stage again for a lovely rendition of Who Wants To Live Forever. It didn’t quite capture the poignancy of the original version but it was close. The guitar work was spot on, though.

Soto joins bass player François-Olivier Doyon on stage for a hard-edged version of Another One Bites the Dust. I must say, the live performances of early synth-based or R&B type Queen songs (i.e., Staying Power) in which they beef up the sound with real drums and heavier guitars give these songs a different life. Add in Soto’s rocking voice and the crowd really picked up on it.

Jennifer was the only band member to parody 
Freddie in some way. If it was one of the men, 
I think it would have invited a perception 
of mockery.
Another Deacon tune, You’re My Best Friend, followed AOBTD but with Jennifer doing her best friendly Freddie rendition. The tone of her voice suited the song well. Jeff came back on stage after this and the vibe definitely changed when the speed-metal guitar riffs from Stone Cold Crazy kicked in. I gotta honest, I was holding my breath when Soto got to the point in the song where Metallic’s version deviated away from the family-friendly lyrics. Would Soto follow Hatfield’s profanity lyric or stick with the original Queen version? Thankfully for the parents of the four-year-old in front of me, it was safe.

Martel then asked how many “Queen Geeks” were in the audience. With a show of hands, it was obviously he was preaching to the choir. This was a lead-up to explaining why the following two songs may not be as familiar to some as the past laundry list of hits have been. As expected, they performed both sections of In The Lap of the Gods. What disappointed me was that Seven Seas of Rhye was not performed during the Calgary show but was played at other venues on this tour. After these back-to-back Sheer Heart Attack tunes, Tyler Warren gave a drum solo that seemed a bit out of place. Why not have the solo either before or after I’m In Love With My Car?

This four-year-old came a long way tonight. 
During the first set, he was visibly uncomfortable 
as he covered his ears. By the close of the show 
he was happily gesturing with the best of 'em.
Martel’s performance of Queen’s swan song, The Show Must Go On, was very poignant as I hoped it would be. I’m usually disappointed in most attempts at this song because they can’t get the whole “my soul is painted like the wings on butterflies” part right. But Martel did a great job. He kept the energy going with his tribute to “’80s fun” by reaffirming Fascist anthem rock is alive and well in Calgary: Radio Ga Ga had everyone hand clapping in unison. Footage from Metropolis and the actual music video probably helped those not familiar with the audience choreography probably helped them along.

Soto then arrived on stage to dedicate the next song to all the ladies in the crowd with big bums. We all know where this was headed and sure enough the multilayered vocal harmonies of Fat Bottomed Girls began. Choosing Jeff to front this song was a great fit. After a thunderous applause, Marc returned to the piano on the stage and performed the song that launched his YouTube career, Somebody To Love.

The inevitable encore consisted of We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions.

After the final bow, Marc announced that all members would be out at the merchandise table and willing to sign anything put in front of them. Damn, it’s too bad they didn’t have a program. In hindsight, I should have gotten at least one of them to sign my business card that has this blog URL on it, and give him/her one as well so they can scope out Queenville at their leisure. But it didn’t occur to me until my brother and I were on the way back home. Oh well.

So was it the Marc Martel show? No. Marc is arguably the most visible member because of his journey to get here, but he by no means stole the show. Half way through the show, Marc echoed Roger’s stated goal of putting together a group of musicians capable of executing Queen songs in a way that was as close to the recorded versions as possible. Sure, there needed to be a sense of similarity to the vocals — just as there would be for the other instruments — but the visual appeal of the band was secondary to their performance.

By having four capable, lead vocalists, they could select which singer best suited the song at hand. By having two guitars, the complex, multi tracked guitar sections found on the records could be performed more closely to how the originals sounded. I have to admit, the QE sound was much fuller and richer than anything I’ve heard Queen themselves do, simply because there are nine live performers doing what four managed to do in the studio.

By downplaying the visual similarities between this band and Queen, the audience was left with focusing on the music itself, which kicked ass. As a matter of fact, it confirmed why Queen music has meant so much to me over the years.

Was this the best Queen tribute show I’ve been to? No question.



  1. Awesome! Thanks a lot for posting this. It was an amazing night!

    1. You're welcome, Jon. I'll be curious to see whether QE is a permanent gig or not. Who knows, we may see them swing through Calgary again, which would be cool.