In case you’ve been living under a pop culture rock lately, The Queen Extravaganza is a new band that is, quite literally, a touring tribute band (and if I have to explain to which band they’re paying tribute, I will drive to where you are and smack you upside the head). In fact, they might just be the ultimate tribute band. How often does a band that is playing another band’s music land a spotlight slot on American Idol? Ok, so I’m not a fan of that show and missed the performance the first time around, but even I caught it on the web later…and was impressed. Combine that with a good friend who’s an enormous Queen fan and it seemed destined that this was a show I should check out.
Seeing this show was very nearly an out-of-body experience. Not because I was starstruck in any particular way (I probably actually have more stage time than a couple of the players in this group, and it’s the first time that many of them have toured), but because, if I closed my eyes, it sounded almost exactly like I was in the studio with Queen. And, in fact, the group went on to explain that this was one of the goals of the band: to reproduce not only Queen’s live sound, but their studio sound as well. This is easier said than done, as Queen was famous for pushing the boundaries of recording with tons of layered vocals to make four guys sound like a choir. To recreate that big sound, the Queen Extravaganza includes nine members, four of which are lead vocalists (three male and one female), and all of which provide killer backing vocals when it’s not their turn to be the lead. Additionally, literally every member of the band sings. Every single one. Add to this that lead vocalist Marc Martel can augment things with more piano and guitar chops when needed, and you have an incredibly flexible band that can reproduce Queen’s trademark massively-multitracked sound in a live environment.
All of the band members are extremely talented, but special attention does need to be given to Marc Martel. While all of the lead vocalists can hit the notes and do incredible justice to Mercury’s vocals, Martel captures every inflection and bit of tonality perfectly. What’s even more amazing is that this doesn’t appear to merely be an impression; it’s literally the way that he naturally sounds. Combine this with the fact that his countenance is very similar to that of Freddie Mercury in his late twenties, and it becomes uncanny. Marc virtually creates the impression that Freddie has returned from the grave…as a blue-eyed, more square-jawed, straight, Canadian version of himself. The resemblance, both in physicality and sound, elicited nonstop awestruck commentary from the crowd.
Another player to single out is drummer Tyler Warren. Not only is he a more-than-solid drummer, he sang backing vocals on every song, often the highest part. He also handled lead vocals for “I’m In Love With My Car” just as Roger Taylor did for Queen. This dude has big pipes, and it was impressive to watch him work the kit and the mic at the same time.
The songs covered went beyond what I expected. They hit all of the usual suspects, like “We Will Rock You,” “We Are The Champions,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and a deadly-accurate “Bohemian Rhapsody” (including singing the intro with all four lead vocalists arranging in a diamond pattern in the dark with a spotlight on them a la the music video for the song). But they also took back “Under Pressure” from Vanilla Ice (doing it with two vocalists to simulate Mercury and Bowie, appropriately), covered their too-oft forgotten theme from Iron Eagle, “One Vision,” and even did an amazing version of “In The Lap of The Gods” (parts 1 & 2) for the fans who know the deeper catalog.
There was no bother with an opening band, but rather The Queen Extravaganza came out, played a full set, took a 15-minute break, and then did another full set…about two-and-a-half hours all together. The crowd was energized throughout the entire show, usually singing the songs with the band (which they highly encouraged). At one point, Marc Martel told the crowd, “Wow, I think that Houston is officially the loudest crowd we’ve had on the entire tour.”
Blemishes were minor – practically nonexistent. Jeff Scott Soto was having some issues with hoarseness that night. For anyone who knows vocals, it was apparent from the beginning. He’s a pro, though, and he loosened up, hit almost all of the notes, and when he knew it wasn’t going to happen, he picked something else that worked (not to mention leaned on the fact that he had eight other great vocalists on stage with him). While I would have liked to have heard him at full power (because I know he is a vocal monster…I remember when he was lead vocalist for Yngwie Malmsteen on his first two solo albums), his professionalism, poise, and energy made things work anyway. The only other issue noted was that, despite their amazing playing, Brian Gresh and Tristan Avakian (the two guitarists) didn’t show a lot of personality in the first half of the show; however, they more than made up for it in the second half, really coming alive and having fun with the show. Gresh even pulled off a backflip while playing a solo.
The final assessment goes like this: if you like Queen music, even a little bit, you should catch this show. This is an over-the-top performance from stellar musicians, most of whom are just launching their careers. The tickets I bought weren’t overly expensive (about $27 with the service charge), and so this is one show that was more than worth the money. Go see it.
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