When Adam Lambert was a young theater performer with a growing rock & roll fixation, there was one flamboyant singer who reflected his interests in the masculine and feminine, the daring and ironic: Queen's late frontman Freddie Mercury.
"What I always loved about Queen was that I could see what Freddie and the band were exploring, and I could identify with that," says Lambert, the breakout American Idol runner-up and solo hitmaker, who also tours with Queen + Adam Lambert. "I started falling in love with rock & roll, I dressed up like a club kid and went out at night, wore weird shit, I'm gay – all of that stuff put together. When I look at the history of rock & roll, Queen is the band that resonated the most with me: 'That's me, that's my life.'"
That is only more true since his graduation from Idol's Season 8, where he first met and performed with Queen's surviving members, guitarist Brian May and drummer-singer Roger Taylor. (Founding bassist John Deacon retired in 1997.) Lambert has toured regularly with the British rock act since 2012, and this summer, Queen + Adam Lambert will head out on a 25-city North American tour, opening June 23rd in Phoenix, Arizona, performing the band's major hits from the Seventies and Eighties, from "Killer Queen" to "Under Pressure."
In glittery costumes and sculpted hair, Lambert has been a major part of Queen's most active period as a touring unit since Mercury's 1991 death.
"Look at what Freddie pulled off: He had the balls to do so much outlandish shit onstage and say exactly whatever he wanted to say and wear whatever he wanted to wear," Lambert, 35, tells Rolling Stone, dressed in a Crayola-blue leather motorcycle jacket, his nails painted black.
The singer is in a Los Angeles hotel suite to discuss the tour, sitting between the two classic rock elder statesmen: Taylor in a white beard and pinstripes, May smiling with gray curls to his shoulders. "We have a great foil in Adam," says May.
"I've always been honored and understanding of the weight and legacy of the band," Lambert says. "In the beginning, I was pretty intimidated by that. I tried not to let it show.
"Can I handle all this? Am I going to be able to do it justice? Is the audience going to accept me? Is the band going to accept me? Am I going to be a pain in the ass?" He smiles. "I've learned to finesse it a little bit more."
Song choices on the tour will lean heavily on the band's many hits, but also leave room for deeper cuts known to hardcore fans. May notes that the tour lands during the 40th anniversary of 1977's multi-platinum News of the World album, which included the two-part anthem "We Will Rock You"/"We Are the Champions."
"The real fans of course know our stuff," says May. "The general public knows the hits, so you've got to cater for that. But we can chuck in a few things that people really don't expect. We'll do quite a bit more of that this time around."
Taylor adds, "Just to keep our own interest up, we'll be doing stuff we either haven't done before or haven't done for a long time. ... We started as an albums band – that's what we were. The fact that we had hits was just 'by the way.' It was a byproduct."
In 2017, Queen + Adam Lambert plan to roll out a state-of-the-art digital-based stage production, which both modernizes the show and opens up new possibilities for an immersive arena rock experience. "People will be shocked. It doesn't look traditional at all," says May. "Nevertheless, we'll be able to use it to recreate some moments from the past in some ways, which is going to be fascinating."
At the same time, the band will not be locked into a tightly choreographed, computerized set with click tracks to keep Queen within a rigid tempo. The band will have the option of stretching out on a musical whim, continuing a tradition that leaves even repeat audience members guessing.
"Freddie used to hate that," says May with a laugh. "They would want to anticipate what he was going to say: 'Fuckers! Watch the show that I'm going to give you!'"
For five years, May and Taylor continued performing as Queen with singer Paul Rodgers, acclaimed for his work in Free and Bad Company. Billed as Queen + Paul Rodgers, they toured the world and recorded one studio album, 2008's The Cosmos Rocks. Taylor calls Rogers "one of our favorite singers" but he wasn't a perfect fit "because he's a blues song singer – one of the very finest in the world."
When that collaboration broke off, the Queen players weren't sure there would be a future for the band. "I remember traveling around cities and looking at arenas and thinking, 'Oh, we used to do that,'" May recalls now. "'We're not going to be doing that anymore.'"
In 2009, May started hearing about a young singer from San Diego, California, on American Idol, who auditioned by performing a cover of Queen's epic "Bohemian Rhapsody." May recalls, "Suddenly out of the blue, there's this guy appearing on American Idol – everybody's phoning me up: 'You've got to see this guy! He's brilliant. He should be your singer.' There was no escaping the fact that Adam was perfect."
Queen appeared on that season's finale of Idol, with Lambert and others singing "We Will Rock You"/"We Are the Champions." In 2012, Queen + Adam Lambert made its debut as a fully formed act performing for the thousands filling the city square of Kiev, Ukraine (co-headlining with Elton John).
"Adam was thrown in the deep end, really," says Taylor of that first full show, which came after just nine days of rehearsals. "It was quite a baptism by fire."
Lambert has looked at video recordings of his early shows with Queen, studying the good moments, and the bad. "I hit some bum notes, man," he says. "Now it's been six or seven years working together – I feel more and more comfortable, which allows for more and more freedom. And I've grown up a little bit in the time that we've known each other."
While the collaboration continues, there is no plan to take Queen + Adam Lambert into the recording studio, where the original band thrived for so many years. Taylor insists the subject comes up mainly in interviews, and that they have never discussed it. One reason was the lukewarm reception for the album with Rodgers.
"A little bit of the reticence from Roger and I is because we spent a big part of our lives doing that with Paul Rodgers – on which there was some good material and we worked damn hard for months on end," says May. "He's great, there's no doubt about it, but nobody cared. It just disappeared. We sort of got the message, rightly or wrongly, that people just wanted to hear Queen with Freddie on record. The evidence is totally the opposite in regards to live – they love what we're doing now, there's no question, so we gravitated towards the live stuff."
May and Taylor are content with their recorded history, and Lambert maintains an entirely separate solo career, with three high-charting studio albums (including 2012's U.S. Number One, Trespassing) released under his name so far. Just days ago, he began work on a new project. And Lambert's fans do come out to the Queen shows. "There's a fair amount," he says. "I think the majority of the audience is a Queen audience, but I've definitely seen some Glamberts out there."
May notes that Lambert and his most devoted fans share a certain flamboyant fashion sensibility. "They have flashing tiaras," says May, "so you can spot them."
Queen + Adam Lambert announced a 25-city U.S. tour for this summer. Watch here.