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Still reigning Queen comes to Buffalo having unearthed new meaning in its music with singer Paul Rodgers

They had it all.

In the '70s, as rock music moved into the arena of major spectacle, and radio still spun entire sides of new albums by a diverse array of groups ranging from hard rock to progressive rock to singer-songwriter fare, it seemed that nothing could challenge the reign of Britain's Queen.

Bold, flamboyant, ambitious, over-the-top, endlessly entertaining and dazzlingly talented, the group released a string of genre-bending albums and created hit singles with influences ranging from opera to disco to power-pop. It also gained a reputation for its riveting stage shows, and led a lifestyle that came to be emblematic of the era's lavish excesses. Though its commercial fortunes dipped a touch in this country, worldwide, Queen carried its success with it well into the 1980s.

But when the band's frontman and heartbeat Freddie Mercury died of AIDS-related illness in 1991, it seemed Queen had finally been dealt a blow it couldn't deflect. Mercury was clearly one of a kind, the greatest of the great '70s rock frontmen, and the voice, attitude, and look of Queen.

After his death, the band performed a tearful Mercury tribute show in England with a host of mega-stars attempting to fill in for the flamboyant singer.

And that, it seemed, was that.

>Free at last

As far as Queen fans were concerned, the band was finished. Attempting to go on without Mercury would be tantamount to the Beatles soldiering on without John Lennon, or Led Zeppelin without John Bonham. This, to many, is a strict no-no; just ask Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of the Who, who carried on after the deaths of both Keith Moon and John Entwistle, and were widely criticized, rightly or wrongly, for doing so.

When, two years back, rumors started circulating that the surviving members of Queen -- guitarist/vocalist Brian May and drummer/vocalist Roger Taylor, minus bassist John Deacon, who had officially retired from the music business -- were considering reforming with legendary vocalist Paul Rodgers (of Free, Bad Company and the Firm) in Mercury's stead, the reaction among Queen fans and the rock press in general ranged from skepticism to downright disbelief.

Conventional wisdom, as espoused by many scribes and Queen fan bloggers, suggested that Rodgers, a full-throated blues-based belter with a decidedly macho stage presence, was a strange choice to replace Mercury, a bisexual given to wearing leotards and prancing about the stage like a cock-of-the-walk, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

After all, Mercury blended hard rock, opera, vaudeville, show tunes and various world musics at will; rarely did he actually sing the blues. This is the man who conceived "Bohemian Rhapsody," remember. What could Rodgers, the singer known for blues-rock anthems like "Alright Now," "Can't Get Enough" and "Shooting Star," bring to Queen's royal family? Plenty, as it turns out.

"I really just felt that I didn't necessarily have anything to prove, that I had no intention of trying to 'replace' Freddie, because, quite clearly, that could never be done," says Rodgers, speaking to The News by phone last month, just as Queen launched its first U.S. tour in 24 years. "I have nothing but respect and admiration for the man, and when we first discussed getting together to do this in a big way, it was always with the understanding that I would simply be myself, not a version of myself imitating Freddie. Brian and Roger never wanted it to be any other way."

Rodgers, a warm and personable interview subject, is being far too humble. He indeed has nothing to prove, having fronted one of the finest blues-rock fusion bands of the '60s, Free, going on to pilot Bad Company through its finest hours, both critically and commercially, and making two albums with Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, as the Firm. Through it all, Rodgers has maintained an uncanny ability to excavate the blues from any given musical situation. Though it might appear unlikely on paper, that's exactly what Rodgers does with Queen.

"Paul is quite clearly one of the finest singers in rock history; he simply oozes soul," says drummer Taylor. "We have been fans of his from the beginning. There was never any question of Paul imitating Freddie or replacing Freddie in Queen. We simply jammed together, it felt fantastic, felt natural and evolved from there. We haven't replaced Freddie; we've formed a new band, with Paul."

Listening to the band's recent "Return of the Champions" CD/DVD, documenting one of the revived band's earliest shows together, a date last year in Sheffield, England, Taylor's words are given credence. And the naysayers are offered a serious challenge. This is indeed Queen, but it's a band dedicated to unearthing new meaning in its own music.

Rodgers, not surprisingly, is in fine vocal form, tearing through Queen favorites like "Tie Your Mother Down," "Fat-Bottomed Girls" and "I Want It All" with fiery aplomb, but more surprisingly, bringing his considerable blues and soul chops to bear on the more "camp" jewels in the Queen crown, among them "I Want to Break Free" and "Another One Bites the Dust." What's particularly surprising is how natural and organic this new union sounds. May and Taylor -- founding members of one of the most successful bands, commercially speaking, in rock history, but a band never given its true critical due -- have pulled off the near impossible: They've found life after Freddie.

>Poetic champions

Rock criticism became a real art form in the '70s, just as Queen's star was rising, but with the arrival of strong critical voices came a severe distrust of rock music considered too "high falutin' " for the layman's taste. "Progressive rock" was drilled relentlessly by these critics and was held to be emblematic of rock's demise into the wholly decadent and self-indulgent.

Part of the reason for this was surely the fact that the best "prog-rock" was dense, challenging and difficult. It appealed to musicians and listeners who looked to the music for more than mere entertainment, much more than it did to critics trying to strut their "cultural hipness" wares. Queen, whose multi-idiomatic, dramatic music fit the very definition of "progressive," was labeled a dinosaur band by those who would tout the working-class realism of "anyone can do it" punk rock above all else.

Time has proven this critical opinion to be wholly absurd. Queen's '70s output, particularly the mid- to late-decade span of albums beginning with "Sheer Heart Attack," ending with the epic "Live Killers," and including the masterpieces "A Night at the Opera" and "A Day at the Races," sounds as thrillingly diverse and as frankly brave today as it did upon its initial release. Each of these albums is, in its own fashion, much like the Beatles' "White Album," in that there seem to be no limits placed on what genres, styles, inflections and idioms might be considered grist for the band's creative mill.

"That's about the highest praise I've ever heard given to the band," Taylor laughs. "That's exactly what we were going for. We held the Beatles in the highest esteem, and only hoped to make our albums as multilayered, musical and interesting as theirs. There was the sense that we could try anything, that the only limits were those of our own imaginations. We really encouraged each other to experiment. It was always a really open, creative environment.

"I think there is indeed less of that going on these days in popular music, though there are definite examples of new bands and artists who have carried on that tradition," he said. "I suppose that's why our music continues to mean something to many people. It was made with great care and concern for craft, but also, with a great sense of fun and play. With Paul on board, we're simply carrying on that tradition."

WHO: Queen plus Paul Rodgers

WHEN: 8 p.m. today

WHERE: HSBC Arena

TICKETS: $35 to $99 (box office, Tickets.com)

INFO: (888) 223-6000 or www.hsbcarena.com

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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