Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 21, 2014)
In November 1974, the band Queen found themselves on the threshold of super-stardom. Their 1973 debut album did okay in the UK and made little impression in the US, but March 1974’s Queen II demonstrated popularity on the upswing. That release only got to number 49 in the US but it cracked the top 5 in the UK.
November 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack achieved a higher popular profile. It crept to number 12 in the US and worked its way to number 2 in the UK, a precursor to the “dam-burst” that would happen in 1975 when A Night at the Opera would reach number 1 in both US and UK.
As seen in this 2014 release, Live at the Rainbow 1974 shows us Queen on the verge of the big time. Touring to support Sheer Heart Attack, the Blu-ray includes seven songs from that then-new album: “Killer Queen”, “Now I’m Here”, “In the Lap of the Gods”, “Stone Cold Crazy”, “Flick of the Wrist”, “In the Lap of the Gods Revisited” and “Bring Back That Leroy Brown”.
1974’s Queen II delivers “Procession”, “Father to Son”, “White Queen (As It Began)”, “Ogre Battle”, “The March of the Black Queen” and “Seven Seas of Rhye”, while the 1973 debut Queen brings us “Keep Yourself Alive”, “Liar”, “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll”, and “Son and Daughter”. We also find covers of “Big Spender” and “Jailhouse Rock”.
Technically, I wasn’t too young to have seen Queen play live. They last toured the US in 1982; I was 15 then and had just started to actively go to concerts.
While old enough for rock shows, I simply wasn’t interested enough to see Queen. I liked the band okay in their earlier heyday but was never a big fan, and whatever mild fondness I ever held for them was gone by 1982. I may not even have known they were coming to town, and if I did, I definitely didn’t care.
In retrospect, I regret that somewhat, as I would like to have seen Queen. However, I don’t know how much I would’ve gotten from the show at the time given that I wasn’t much of a fan.
Now that I’m 47, I have more interest in Queen than I did 32 years ago, but I still couldn’t call myself more than a mild fan. Speaking for those with a less than strong passion for Queen, Rainbow might be a bit off-putting on the surface. After all, the vast majority of the band’s best-known songs came out after 1974, so a casual admirer won’t find many tracks here that he/she will already know.
Hopefully that won’t be a major impediment for potential viewers, though, as Rainbow offers a pretty solid show. Of course, I suspect it’ll be of primary interest to serious fans. Those folks probably want to hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Are the Champions” as much as I want to hear “Satisfaction” or “Born to Run”, which is to say “I could go the rest of my life without hearing them again”. With an obvious heavy concentration on Queen’s first three albums, Rainbow delivers a probable treasure trove of lesser-known tracks sure to please those diehards.
Even though casual fans like me will only know a handful of Rainbow songs, that doesn’t make it an unenjoyable show. Actually, the focus on songs I’ve not heard 12 billion times adds spice to the proceedings, especially since most are pretty good.
Queen circa 1974 seems to have been something of an odd beast. They rocked too hard to clearly fit among the era’s true Prog bands like Yes or Genesis, but they also brought an artier, more esoteric vibe than the average mid-1970s hard rock group.
Singer Freddie Mercury would always defy easy categorization. Some regard him as one of the greatest singers in rock history – if not number one on that list – while others hear too much “Broadway” in his voice to accept him as a true “rock singer”.
I see the points expressed by both sides. On one hand, Mercury boasted a genuinely great voice, as he had range and power well beyond most rock singers. On the other hand, there’s so much “show tune” and “cabaret” in Mercury’s style that he can seem less “rock” than one might like.
However one feels, it’s next to impossible to imagine someone else as Queen’s vocalist; try as the surviving members might, they can’t really replace him, and a more traditional “rock singer” probably would’ve seemed out of place among the band’s theatrical stylings.
Mercury certainly offers great vocals here, as he demonstrates all the power and majesty one expects from him, and his bandmates play the tracks well. Focused on the live stage, these renditions deliver the songs in a muscular way that adds oomph to the songs. Those of us who got into music in the late 1970s remain better-acquainted with a more
“pop” feel from Queen, so the hard rock trend on display here comes as a pleasant mini-surprise. That said, I’ll admit I could live without Brian May’s extended guitar solo mid-show; just because Jimmy Page did it didn’t mean you had to as well, Brian!
In terms of staging, Rainbow keeps things basic. The presentation comes with no on-stage gewgaws or accoutrements; all the visual pizzazz comes from lighting and the ever-flamboyant Mercury. That proves to be enough, as even in his early days, Mercury knew how to hold control of a stage.
As directed by Bruce Gowers, Rainbow avoids unnecessary tricks. It also doesn’t display a lot of flair, as it presents the concert in a simple, workman-like manner.
And that’s fine. While I think Rainbow could offer a bit more flair in its editing/shot choices, it gives us a positive representation of the original concert. I’d prefer a no-frills presentation to one that goes overboard, so I’m happy with these decisions.
As I write this, I have yet to check out fan reactions to Rainbow, but I’d be surprised to find many negative comments, as this Blu-ray offers a good take on a high-quality concert. Queen buffs should love it, and more casual fans should find a lot to enjoy as well.