The English guitar god responsible for the classic riffs and leads behind “We Will Rock You,” “We Are the Champions,” and “I Want to Break Free” celebrated his 66th with an intimate ruminative recital at Stravinski Auditorium during the Montreux Jazz Festival in July 2013. But Brian wasn’t alone; accompanying the six-string legend was Broadway sensation Kerry Ellis, who met May over a decade ago and joined him at a 2012 charity event in support of the Born Free Foundation.
Now available from Eagle Rock Entertainment, Brian May & Kerry Ellis: The Candlelight Concerts—Live at Montreux 2013 is a stunning CD/DVD set documenting the couple’s elegant-but-electrifying performance, wherein guitarist and singer run through a mix of show tunes, originals, and a couple surprising pop-rock covers for a modest (by Queen standards) but receptive audience. It’s largely an acoustic affair, with Ellis and May seated side-by-side, the blonde chanteuse alternately cooing and belting into a microphone as her professorial partner strums fingerpicks delicate strains from his 6 and 12-string instruments.
There are overlaps in the material presented on the concert film and CD, but the songs are sequenced differently— meaning fans are treated to two relatively distinct musical experiences. Unlike the DVD (which captures the Montreux event), the bonus CD is a compilation of live performances from shows in Salisbury, Islington, Bury St. Edumunds, and St. Albans in November 2012. Both the Montreux film and U.K. audio CD each contain at least one cut the other doesn’t; we’ll stick to the running order on the titular DVD for purposes of this review.
Ellis is easy on the eyes as well as ears, seducing the filmmaker’s cameras along and Swiss spectators without even trying. Resplendent in a black dress (later changing to plum), the former The Voice star beguiles on Leiber / Stoller opening number “I Who Have Nothing” (based on the Italian tune “Uno Dei Tanti” by Carlo Donida and Giulio “Mogol” Rapetti), then tugs heartstrings with a pair of numbers dedicated to actress / activist Viriginia McKenna’s Born Free Foundation: The haunting “Nothing Has Really Changed” argues for the protection of Earth’s fragile ecology, while the John Barry-scored “Born Free” is a more uplifting, almost folky environmental anthem espousing the protection of endangered species. Images of frolicking lions and foraging badgers are displayed on unobtrusive screens behind Ellis and May, whose passion for the subject matter truly comes across onstage. Indeed, the potent combo of Ellis’s voice, May’s guitars (and backup vocal), and McKenna’s animal footage makes for several genuine lump-in-the-throat moments that can’t be found on other concert DVDs.
Dr. May—yes, doctor (Ph.D. in astrophysics)—indulges his fascination with cosmic particles with a stirring cover of existential Kansas classic “Dust in the Wind,” whereon Ellis sings like an angel. May pays tribute to fallen Beatle pal George Harrison with an exquisite “Something”—but even more astonishing is the couple’s take on the Bergman / Hamlisch-penned ‘70s hit “The Way We Were.” Who’d have guessed we’d ever hear the “Bohemian Rhapsody” guitarist knowing out a Barbara Streisand hit, or that it’d sound this terrific? May prefaces the toe-tappin’ country-flavored “’39” with a reflection on his lifelong love of science fiction.
The Queen / Freddie Mercury covers are surefire crowd-pleasers, but they’re rendered much differently here than the familiar radio versions on the original LPs. A keyboardist friend graces the May-sung “Somebody to Love” with a minuet-like intro; “Life is Real” is played en homage to both Mercury and John Lennon; “Love of My Life” features both Ellis and May on vocals; latter-day Queen track “No One But You” shimmers with good-die young melancholy and oozes Icarusian double-meaning.
Naturally, May busts out his “Red Special” electric guitar (or a replica thereof) for some rock and roll excitement. Culled from his 1992 solo effort Back to the Light, “Last Horizon” bristles with distortion, controlled feedback, two-handed tapping, and Robert Fripp-esque space noise. The spirited Ellis / May original “Kiss Me Song” bounces over a strident pop-rock riff while a slideshow of friends and lovers caught in public displays of affection light the big screen (watch for May himself in a Flash Gordon T-shirt).
Songbird and guitar god harmonize with the audience on the raucous “Tie Your Mother Down” (from Queen’s 1976 album A Day at the Races), and get ‘em stopping their feet and clapping to simulate Roger Taylor’s sparse-but-memorable percussion on “We Will Rock You.” Ellis and May thank their hosts—and salute recently-deceased Montreux founder Claude Nobs—before signing off with a swaggering “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (from Queen’s 1980 LP The Game).
The Candlelight Concerts CD features Ellis’ own “I Loved a Butterfly,” ”I Can’t Be Your Friend,” and Wicked highlight “I’m Not that Girl” (Ellis had a turn as Elphaba in the 2008 theatrical production), but omits May’s solo material (“’39” and “Last Horizon”). We’re certain the guitarist doesn’t mind; he produced Ellis’ solo debut, Anthems, before touring with her in 2011, so credit him for sharing the spotlight with a worthy talent. Holiday tune “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “I Can’t Be Your Friend” supplant the Queen covers “Tie Your Mother Down” and “We Will Rock You,” making the CD something of a quieter, more refined listen than the film soundtrack.
We’ve seen our share of legendary Queen concert videos over the years, and since Freddie’s tragic death some twenty years several “Queen +” incarnations have passed the titan’s torch to surrogate singers (Paul Rodgers, Adam Lambert, etc.) for a handful of high-volume tribute shows and one-offs. So it’s nice to finally see and hear the music of Queen presented in completely different environs, stripped-down (sans drums and bass) and sung by a honey-haired, golden-voiced female whose resume includes Miss Saigon, RENT, and Les Miserables instead of prior stadium rock experience. Ellis’ pipes and temperament lend themselves to the music of Mercury and May, and the subdued, dimly-lit Stravinski stage provides a perfect backdrop for a magical evening.
Brian May & Kerry Ellis: The Candlelight Concerts—Live at Montreux 2013 now available at Amazon.com and other retailers.