I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to see Queen at the very top of their game when the band opened its U.S. tour at the Milwaukee Auditorium in January 1977. To this day, it remains one of my favorite concert experiences.
By 1982, Queen stopped touring in the U.S., and when frontman extraordinaire Freddie Mercury passed away in late 1991, the opportunity to experience the sound, fury and spectacle of Queen live appeared to be gone for good.
But in 2000, a young singer named Gary Mullen appeared on the British TV talent show "Stars in Their Eyes" doing his remarkable impersonation of Mercury. Mullen won the overall "Stars" Live Grand Final, securing more than twice the number of votes the runner-up received and setting the all-time record for votes on the show.
For the next two years, Mullen performed as a solo artist to rave reviews, and in 2002, he created "One Night of Queen" and formed his band The Works. Over the next 12 years, "One Night of Queen" would play thousands of shows on almost every continent, giving an entire generation of fans an opportunity to feel what it was like to see Queen play live in its heyday.
"On a slow year, we do about 150 shows," Mullen said. "It must be over a million people that we’ve touched, doing more than 1,500 shows since we formed."
The band's latest stop finds it in Milwaukee, playing the Northern Lights Theater at Potawatomi Bingo Casino Tuesday and Wednesday night.
But "One Night of Queen" isn’t like some tribute shows, which toss together a group of talented yet somewhat faceless musicians to do painstakingly accurate (and occasionally stilted) live renditions of your musical memories. No, this is a rock concert. It’s loud, raw and in your face. Mullen and The Works – featuring Billy Moffat (bass), Malcolm Gentles (keyboards), Jonathan Evans (drums) and David Brockett (guitar) – have spent years honing their ability to capture the raucous, interactive spirit of a Queen live performance.
"We approach our performances as a band – a real rock band – and I think that sometimes people are a bit stunned by the energy and intensity of the show," Mullen said. "It can scare the crap out of people, but in a good way. Once they realize it’s okay to dance, play air guitar and sing along, it creates a magical evening."
Mullen admits that it can be a challenge to have to live up to the reputation of one of rock’s most beloved front men, but it's one that he relishes.
"We’ve got to deliver an experience that meets people’s expectations," Mullen said. "Queen could have an off night; we can’t. We have to represent the band at its very best. The audience is living with nostalgia and a romantic notion of these guys at their peak, and we have to reach that peak every night.
"When you’re doing four shows in a row, it can be a challenge to sing the songs in a high register like ‘One Vision’ and ‘A Kind of Magic.’ But the real challenge is going out to a fresh audience every night and working to win them over. The most important people in the room are the audience – the people who’ve spent their hard earned money to come and see the show. We give it everything we have every night, and that’s why we’ve been successful."
After 12 years on the road, Mullen and The Works have learned which songs go over best, but they like to mix up the set list from tour to tour. For those who saw the show last year, Mullen pointed out that they've thrown in a few different songs and added some new medleys.
Mullen is looking forward to returning to Milwaukee. For the most part.
"We’ve got some friends and colleagues in Milwaukee – our U.S. production company are based there – so we’re excited about coming back ... except for the fact that we’ve just been to Bermuda," Mullen said. "I’m not sure the weather will be quite like that in Milwaukee."
Regardless of the temperature outside, Gary Mullen and The Works will undoubtedly create a "Hot Space" for Queen fans new and old at the Northern Lights Theater.