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Queen still reigns as British group rocks, even without Freddie Mercury

A testament to the enduring power of classic British rock? A celebration of seasoned musicians regaining the power of their own music? A grand party honoring rock bombast and showmanship? Proof that, in the world of rock 'n' roll, you can go home again?

Take your pick.

Friday evening's Queen show in HSBC Arena was all of these.

The surprisingly sparse attendance offered no reflection on what was happening on stage. For more than two hours, this most classic of British rock bands at once celebrated its legacy with deceased frontman extraordinaire Freddie Mercury, and placed itself firmly in the here-and-now with former Free/Bad Company/the Firm singer Paul Rodgers.

This was rock the way they used to do it in the '70s: big, bold, beautiful, bombastic, a visual spectacle matched by virtuosic, soulful musicianship. One might ask why a rock band would still include such outdated motifs as an extended guitar and drum solo in its set. The answer is simply that these guys are worthy enough musicians to pull off such feats, trends be damned.

Rodgers is a blues-based singer, clearly one of the finest and most emotive white men to ever delve into that medium. That said, his inclusion in the reformed Queen may have seemed suspect on paper; Mercury, after all, was far from a blues singer, instead blending pop, rock, opera, show tunes and even world music into an inimitable whole. He, more than any other frontman in rock, is the very definition of irreplaceable.

Which is why Rodgers is the perfect man to front the reformed Queen. He's got nothing to prove, and he makes no pretense to filling Freddie's shoes. He simply celebrates these songs while he's singing them, and encourages their continued resonance among the crowd, all the while bringing his own soul-r&b-blues chops to bear.

It was clear after one tune that Rodgers has found his feet in this ensemble. Whether those feet were ready to tread upon a path you favored was another thing.

For my money, Queen with Rodgers is as good as Queen without Mercury could possibly get. (OK, maybe if Bowie called.) Throughout the evening, Rodgers made the stage, the crowd and the music his own. Some among the gathered might have found the new union a bit odd; "Like Bad Company crossed with Queen," said one 20-something I encountered. Well -- yeah. Exactly.

There were moments, for this writer, that ran true, and deeply so. Granted, though I was a serious fan in the late '70s and early '80s -- and remained one throughout all that happened after -- I never saw Queen in concert with Mercury. Those who did have that privilege might have a different take on Friday evening.

Clearly, for anyone who cares about rock guitar, seeing Brian May up close and personal is akin to seeing the very first version of Roxy Music, with Eno. You know what I mean.

Rodgers, to be sure, brought a new aspect to Queen music -- the blues, to narrow it down. He sang with soul phrasing throughout. Occasionally -- say, on "I Want to Break Free," or "Those Were the Days of Our Lives" -- that might have seemed an inappropriate mode. There can be no doubt, however, that it worked. Your stance on that is purely objective. Rodgers sang with passion and fluency. No, he's nothing like Freddie. Or maybe he is.

The band -- Rodgers on vocals and guitar, May on guitar and vocals, Roger Taylor on drums and vocals -- consisted of auxiliary players Spike Edney (keyboards & vocals), Jamie Moses (guitar and vocals) and Danny Miranda (bass and vocals).

They kicked it hard throughout, and though portions of the set bore the odor of studio musician creations, the music managed to retain a healthy organic edge from start to finish.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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