Besides “Radio Ga Ga,” the other likely contender for Queen’s straight-up best pop song next gets a full performance courtesy of English singer Lisa Stansfield, who gives us a bouncy “I Want to Break Free.” Here, Gary Cherone’s performance from the Queen medley takes the prize, but Stansfield does fine nonetheless.
Queen collaborator David Bowie next hits the stage to perform their popular duet “Under Pressure.” Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox fills in for Freddie Mercury, and she even dresses the part. The two deliver a touching performance with a beautiful ending.
Bowie next delivers a few of his own songs, including an all-star jam on “All the Young Dudes” with a couple of the guys he wrote it for, Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson of Mott the Hoople. Joe Elliott and Phil Collen of Def Leppard add to the choir of voices on the chorus, and if there’s one thing Def Leppard knows how to do well it’s that. Bowie, Ronson and the Queen trio also blast through his own hit “Heroes,” which ends surprisingly and starkly with Bowie getting on his knees and delivering the Lord’s Prayer.
After an injection of the somber, things pick up with a brisk, powerful three-song set from pop singer George Michael. History has recorded his work at the Mercury Tribute Concert as among the best performances there, with good reason. He’s sharp, tuneful and full of energy, not to mention incredibly young — only 28 and on stage with some of his heroes! Michael performs the country ballad “’39” (doing much better with the genre than Robert Plant), the soulful classic “Somebody to Love” and the moving “These Are The Days of Our Lives,” the last as a duet with Lisa Stansfield. Michaels released those final two performances on a covers EP several years later. Based on these songs, some viewers suspected Michael might end up becoming Queen’s new full-time singer, and it’s not hard to see why.
And now the real heavies start coming out. For the magnum opus of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” only a monster talent can suffice — so why not get two of them? That’s exactly what happens here; Elton John takes the song’s sensitive piano beginning, and Axl Rose handles its rowdy, rebellious end. The two come together for a fantastic embrace at the end, predating their famous MTV Video Music Awards performance by several months. Strangely, neither of the two legendary singers seem to be especially “on” for this performance; John doesn’t push himself as much as he might, and Axl has some major pitch issues. Still, it’s fun to see these guys collaborate.
Elton’s solo performance of “The Show Must Go On,” essentially Mercury’s swan song, fares much better. He really digs into the lyrics, getting highly passionate about the subject at hand. That probably explains why John and the three remaining members of Queen released a 1997 live performance of this song on their Greatest Hits III record. John even kept the song in his set on successive tours.
Axl then returns to the stage for “We Will Rock You,” where his pitch issues don’t matter as much — he’s got the attitude down. Following that comes probably the most surprising performer of the night, one of a completely different pedigree from everyone else on the Wembley stage: Liza Minelli. Brian May introduces her as someone Mercury really respected, no doubt for her theatricality and stage presence among other things. She’s got a deep, cabaret voice that may not be that well suited to the defiant, almost angry “We Are the Champions”… but that’s okay. Freddie would have been happy, and that’s really all that matters, right? After the second chorus, the entire cast of musicians comes out on stage to say their goodnights, and it’s a truly impressive site. Where else can you see Axl Rose and Roger Daltrey with their arms around each other?
While no doubt an impressive musical achievement, the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert is also more than that. As we mentioned above, the proceeds of the concert went to establish the Mercury Phoenix Trust, a charitable organization dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS primarily through fostering education and awareness of the disease in the developing world. And perhaps we can quantifiably see the good they do. After his performance of “Somebody to Love” at the concert, George Michael delivered the terrifying statistic to Wembley that conservatively, 40 million people were expected to have HIV by the year 2000. According to aids.org, the actual number of people living with the disease in 2000 was 36.1 million — not that far off, but also below what Michael called a conservative estimate. Could Mercury’s death and resulting charitable actions have had something to do with that? Maybe so.
Freddie Mercury’s legacy has touched the world artistically, and it’s making the world a safer place to boot. If you’re interested in helping to continue that legacy, you can visit the Mercury Phoenix Trust website and donate. Freddie would be proud.