A few songs into a set at the packed Forum in Los Angeles in mid-July, Adam Lambert -- sparkling from the glitter in his pompadour and specks that have fallen to his face and black-and-gold suit -- takes a moment to address the audience. He's touring with original Queen band members Brian May on guitar and Roger Taylor on drums.
"I want to address the pink elephant in the room," Lambert says with a wink and a nudge. "I'm not Freddie Mercury."
No one could dare to approximate the dazzle and swagger of the mustachioed Queen front man, and Lambert doesn't try. Rather, he remains faithful to the music and to Mercury's artistry while unleashing his impressive vocal range and innate camp sensibility in a performance that has the crowd on its feet for the two-hour set of Queen megahits. Bearing witness to Lambert, an out gay man, belt songs that Mercury -- a queer man in a time when being out was often a career-killer -- made famous, while throngs of people from across ages, races, and sexual and gender identities is proof of the power of Mercury and Queen to cut across difference.
Lambert, now 36, landed on American Idol 10 years ago when he auditioned with "Bohemian Rhapsody," and he previously toured with May and Taylor as their front man. But with the release of the film Bohemian Rhapsody last fall and a killer performance at the Academy Awards where Lambert and Queen opened the show with a transcendent montage of "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions," the act is playing to sold-out houses as one of the hottest tickets of the summer.
Where Mercury, in his sleeveless tops and tight jeans belting "Killer Queen," was deliciously subversive, seeing Lambert, in his flowing poet's sleeves, singing that song while the crowd hoots and hollers is an affirmation of acceptance for queer people. For a performance of "Bicycle" in what is the de facto second act of the show, Lambert straddles a motorcycle. He poses, vamps, and stretches backward supine and open on the vehicle in a moment that feels like a pure celebration of his gay identity.
Queen has toured before without Mercury. Their first outing was with Paul Rodgers (most famously of Bad Company and the Firm) as their singer. But May and Taylor first played with Lambert in 2009 at the close of his season on American Idol. They played together again on MTV in 2011 and then performed six shows together in 2012.
May addressed why Lambert (who came out publicly a few weeks after his Idol run) was the right fit for them in the recent documentary The Show Must Go On: The Queen + Adam Lambert Story.
"Adam is really like us," May said. "He has many, many colors, so we can explore some of those strange excursions that Queen likes to."
What May didn't say outright is that Lambert is gay. For all of Queen's exquisite rock jams, it was also one of the earliest, biggest acts to embrace queerness, even if it was not explicitly stated. And it still matters.
Mercury's memory permeates every note of Lambert and Queen's performance. It's hard to watch without thinking who Mercury might have become if only he were allowed to be fully out and still blowing the doors off of venues around the world in 2019 (he died of AIDS 28 year ago). At several points during the concert, images of Mercury pop up on a video monitor. He's strong, beautiful, and commanding, and the crowd goes wild. It's still his show, after all.
For hours, Lambert and Queen roll out the hits (and there are so many). They turn out "Somebody to Love," "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," "Fat Bottomed Girls," "Another One Bites the Dust, "Radio Gaga," and, of course, "Bohemian Rhapsody."
But a quiet moment midway through the show features May alone with his guitar on a stool at the front of the stage singing the elegiac "Love of My Life." The crowd sways while the lights from the thousands of phones in the audience sparkle like stars throughout the venue. Taylor joins May at one point, and it drives home that these men who were with that brightest star, Mercury, from the beginning, are keeping his legacy alive for new audiences.
Adam Lambert and Queen are on tour until early September.