It’s been 14 years since Freddie Mercury died. At that time, it was inconceivable that he could ever be replaced. In many ways, it still is. Mercury was a one of a kind songwriter and entertainer—maybe there were better songwriters, maybe there were better entertainers (though surely not very many), but nobody combined the two with quite the panache that Mercury managed to wield. Regardless of the number of songs that Brian May and Roger Taylor brought to the table, regardless of whether anyone theoretically could replace Mercury’s spot in Queen, it was generally expected that given Mercury’s unique identity and the reverence Queen’s fanbase held for their band’s iconic frontman, nobody actually would, or would even want to.
Of course, that’s before it was accepted practice to cobble together reunion tours with guest vocalists or to hold reality shows to replace the old ones. Perhaps it was when a couple members of The Doors decided that Ian Astbury would be a suitable fill-in for Jim Morrison that the seeds of Queen’s own reunion were planted.
And so, in 2005, Paul Rodgers of Free and Bad Company fame materialized as Freddie’s fill-in. The Mercury loyalists howled, cries of “Blasphemy!” rained down upon the band, yet still, they forged ahead. And as it turned out, even as teeth gnashed and bad publicity shellacked Brian May and Roger Taylor—including some less-than-kind words from retired former bassist John Deacon, here represented via a few fleeting shots on the large video-screen backdrop—people showed up to the shows anyway.
Return of the Champions is credited to “Queen + Paul Rodgers”, a subtle acknowledgement that nobody’s expecting Rodgers to do everything for them that Mercury once did, least of all May and Taylor themselves. Indeed, even as Rodgers is there to handle the vocal duties for a pile of Queen songs, he does so by inserting his own identity into them, giving them a slightly gruffer, rockier edge than Mercury once did. He even pulls out a couple of Free tunes and a couple of Bad Company tunes, giving even more credence to the idea that this is truly a collaboration, not just a case of a band trying to make a quick buck by hosting a reunion tour.
Yet most convincing of all is the performance itself.
Return of the Champions documents a performance at Hallam FM Arena in Sheffield, filled to capacity with screaming, waving fans. Every one of the six people on stage looks slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of what is happening, yet it’s obvious by their expressions, the emotion they feed into their respective instruments, and their rapport with one another that they’re having at least as much fun as three guys in their mid-to-late 50s should be allowed. The triumphant entrance on live favorite “Tie Your Mother Down” leads into an impassioned performance of “I Want to Break Free”, whose somber, yet triumphant mood is quickly trumped by a fantastic performance of “Fat Bottomed Girls” that can only be described as rollicking—it can only help that in the hand of Rodgers, it suddenly sounds like a tongue-in-cheek crack at a Free song. Of course, Free’s “Wishing Well” follows, affirming the idea that it isn’t quite Queen that we’re witnessing, but more like Queen’s rambunctious younger brother.
The only decision I may actually question is the band’s decision to make the center portion of the concert a display of exactly what Queen sans Paul Rodgers would be like without Freddie. Fairly early on, Roger Taylor leaves the drum kit and comes out to perform “Say It’s Not True”, and then Brian May does his own solo acoustic reading of “‘39”. Rodgers then comes out for a couple more tunes, but then leaves again for a couple of long instrumental solos and Taylor vocal tracks like “I’m In Love With My Car” and “Radio Ga Ga”, the latter of which I still try to forget exists as part of the Queen canon. If it wasn’t obvious to this point, the stretch drives home just how important Rodgers is to the performance, as it’s all instrumentally sound (particularly May’s long guitar solo that features harmonies with himself via delay—the most impressive surround-sound moment of the DVD), but amounts to a wait for the return of the dynamic frontman.
Of course, Rodgers returns and brings the house down with the requisite performances of “Another One Bites the Dust”, “We Will Rock You”, and “We Are the Champions”, even duetting with a pre-recorded Mercury on “Bohemian Rhapsody”, a song that nobody other than Mercury, really, should ever sing. No, not even Constantine Maroulis.
The DVD itself is relatively barebone, but well-edited with some excellent camerawork—highlights include the overhead “blimp-cam” in a particularly synchronized clapping section of “Radio Ga Ga” (which gave me a brief excuse to not listen to the music) and an excellent exchange of looks between Rodgers and May toward the end of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. Choosing to give us three simultaneous camera angles for Taylor’s soloing on “Let There Be Drums” was a good decision as well. The one extra on the DVD is a performance of Lennon’s “Imagine”, ever poignant but overused, which also manages to be the only song on the DVD that has Taylor, May, and Rodgers each taking a turn on lead vocals. It creates the sort of chemistry and interplay that could have been used to good effect over the course of the show proper.
Such a criticism is a mere nitpick, however. The level of enjoyment to be gleaned by any one person from Return of the Champions hinges entirely on whether that person will allow themselves to hear anyone other than Freddie Mercury singing these songs. Viewed with an open mind, Return of the Champions is mostly as triumphant as its title implies, serving as a tribute to Queen’s dear departed vocalist as much as it does as a fine performance of a pile of solid songs.