From the booming lows of F#2 to the sweet highs of G5, rock band Queen’s legendary singer, the late Freddie Mercury, could hit all the notes. It is no wonder then, that the songs of Queen are considered some of the most difficult ones to cover live. Yet, this is what Mumbai-based musician Merlin D’Souza and her band Merlin and the All Stars have been doing for the past year-and-a-half. Past weekend, they brought the show to Chennai for the first time, at Phoenix MarketCity.
“Queen is evergreen: their music embraces pop, rock and classical, and combines it with meaningful lyrics, in songs that reflect the band members’ journeys,” said Merlin, who herself grew up listening to Queen’s songs. “That was all that was played at the time. It was aparon Freddie, you know? He was from India! So we all tried to imitate him, and innovate through his music.”
Along with Merlin on the keys, were singers Vivienne Pocha, Shazneen Arethna, Yatharth Ratnum, and Ronit Chaterji; guitarist Adil Manuel; JJ, Saurabh Suman and Rhys on saxophone. They were off to a shaky start — even ‘Killer Queen’ failed to hit the nail on its head — the band took its time to get the rock rolling.
The show truly took off after the power sisters Vivienne and Shazneen sang ‘Under Pressure’, followed by Ronit’s rendition of ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’, which featured an Indian style jugalbandi between the keytar and the saxophone. “You don’t normally associate saxophones with Queen, so that’s how we bring in our touch to the music while retaining the classic Queen vibe,” explained Merlin, who also arranged the music. “We add harmonies where there aren’t any, and rethink the composition.”
There was a good deal of theatrics involved as well. A narrator tied the show together by introducing the songs with cringe-worthy jokes and ‘fun facts’ that, actual fans aside, anybody who was hyped up for Bohemian Rhapsody last year would know. Thankfully though, we didn’t have much time to dwell on that — in what was the highlight of the concert, Vivienne moved around the stage in a red cape and crown, singing ‘Somebody to Love’ as her costume billows in the wind.
She was the literal Queen. Her dramatic expressions and attitude only added to the experience of listening to her rich, almost growling, baritone. As she ended the song with a show-stealing belt, starting with a low ‘Somebody’ and ending with a high extended ‘Love’ that crossed multiple octaves without ever being shrieky, the audience gave her a well-deserved standing ovation.
There was no lack of heart either: With ‘Love of my Life’, Merlin beautifully brought Freddie Mercury to life again. Matching Freddie’s vocals and Brian May’s gentle guitar riffs, Merlin played the piano live with them. Singer Yatharth’s sincere performance of ‘Show Must Go On’ is also a testament to his lung capacity. Meanwhile, ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ brought out the group’s swagger, with Yatharth moon-walking his way onto the front of the stage, looking more Michael Jackson than Freddie Mercury.
Merlin and the All Stars will be taking the Queen tour to cities like Delhi and Pune, where it will collaborate with local symphony orchestras. Despite performing since 2018, the band is still not bored of the routine. The show, as Freddie would have said, must go on.