Return of the Champions

Queen / Paul Rodgers

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Return of the Champions Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

When thinking of suitable replacements for Freddie Mercury in Queen, Paul Rodgers is not a name that immediately leaps to mind. As the former lead singer for Free and Bad Company, Rodgers roughly belongs to the same '70s British hard rock pack as Queen, but Rodgers is pretty much the polar opposite of Mercury: a gruff, bluesy, barrel-chested macho blues-rock belter opposed to Freddie's grandly flamboyant, eccentric glam rock showman. Yet when Queen -- or more accurately, Brian May and Roger Taylor, since John Deacon decided to stay retired -- reunited in 2005, they picked Rodgers as their frontman, perhaps because he was one of the few marquee-level names from the '70s left who wasn't working steadily. The double-disc Return of the Champions documents their concert at the Hallam FM Arena in Sheffield on May 9, 2005. The set list is pretty heavy on Queen standards, with a few Bad Company and Free songs, such as "Feel Like Makin' Love" and "All Right Now," thrown in for good measure. Queen sounds big, tight, and professional, and there's even a sense of excitement to some of the performances, as if May and Taylor are invigorated to be out on-stage again, playing these songs for an adoring crowd. The problem is, unsurprisingly, Rodgers, who isn't terrible -- in fact, he gives a spirited performance -- but just is a bad match for Queen's music. When the group is playing some of his songs, everything clicks, and some of the more straightforward Queen tunes, like "We Will Rock You" or "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," sound OK. Thing is, even Queen's hardest-rocking songs, like "Tie Your Mother Down" and "Fat Bottomed Girls," were written with a tongue firmly in cheek and should be delivered with a sense of theatrically that Rodgers simply doesn't have. The end result is jarring, but not overly so: it's listenable, because the band is in good form, but apart from some nice work from May, Return of the Champions never feels like Queen, it feels like a bar-band tribute band given a chance to play a big theater. Listening to the album, you get the sense that it probably was a fun night out, but there's no reason to listen to it at home. (In case you're wondering, the operatic middle section of "Bohemian Rhapsody" is taken from the original record, which makes Rodgers' blustering entrance with "so you think you can stone me and spit in my eye" all the more disarming.)

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