That “little silhouetto of a man” on stage Friday night at World’s Fair Park in downtown Knoxville may not look like Freddie Mercury, but he’ll sure sound like him.
Rick Rock is, after all, frontman for Simply Queen, the Canadian tribute act that will kick off two nights of shows for the Music Feeds concert series, presented by Second Harvest Food Bank. As the doppelganger for the late Queen singer, Rock has seen his band’s profile skyrocket in recent months, ever since the biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released in late 2018.
“We were doing so many shows a year, and all the sudden the movie got so popular, and people fell in love with the story of Queen and how bands go through their careers with the struggles and all of that,” Rock told The Daily Times recently. “It’s another story of what happens to ordinary people when they become famous, and that success has trickled down for everybody. Now, there are commercials all over with Queen songs that people haven’t even heard before. We’re getting calls from more agents and promoters, calls we normally would not get, and doing shows across Canada and the United States, and even in places like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. It’s like Beatlemania, but it’s Queenmania.”
Unlike other Queen tribute acts, Simply Queen has direct ties to the mothership: Bob Wegner, the group’s guitarist, was hand-picked by original Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor to play guitar in the touring musical “We Will Rock You,” a pre-“Bohemian Rhapsody” theater show that featured the band’s music. Afterward, Wegner was looking to put together a Queen tribute act and met Rock, who was playing with another Queen tribute band in the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario.
Rock’s project fell apart, he and Wegner hooked up, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I said, ‘What do you know from Queen’s catalog?,’ and they said, ‘We know all of it!’” Rock said. “And they did. They were total professionals, and it was so easy to put together. Everyone really knew their stuff and knew their place, and we formed with two of the guys in my first band in Windsor.”
One of the ingredients for Simply Queen’s success, Rock added, is that all four members — himself, Wegner, drummer Phil Charrette and bassist Mitch Taylor — have all, at one time or another in their music careers, served as lead vocalists. Given Mercury’s operatic style and dynamic range, the harmonies make the band’s covers all the more powerful, Rock said.
“Even as far back as ‘Killer Queen’ (released in 1974), they had the formula in there with that guitar and those harmonies and the layers of vocals,” Rock said. “They were doing these 1920s and 1930s old harmonies from the past, and that was their trick. It was kind of like vaudeville — there were all these other styles of music within the background layers, and with the work that they put into the records with all of those styles, they were all over the place.”
The diversity of Queen’s catalog makes the band one of the more challenging acts for a tribute band to pay homage to, he added. The band could channel sounds from various genres and switch gears over the course of a single album or even one song, and in determining whether a Queen tribute was viable, the first question the members of Simply Queen asked, he said, was whether they could pull off a credible reproduction live.
“Simply Queen is the live version of Queen, like at Wembley Stadium,” he said. “It’s all harmonies, and there are no tracks. We are the experience of watching Queen live, and the key is to draw the crowd into these songs. That was Freddie’s thing, and that’s what I want. I want people to have a fun time. A lot of times, people go to a show and they listen, and the show is interesting, but if you’re not drawing the crowd in with you, then are they really having fun?”
To do that, Simply Queen elects to visually represent Queen as well. Costumes, wigs and Mercury’s trademark moustache are all part of the show, and while he and his bandmates aren’t trying to mimic Queen, they definitely choose to channel the band’s unique style.
“No one will ever be like Freddie was, and at first, I wondered if I should even try — but to make it more of a show, I thought I had to,” Rock said. “So I grew the moustache, cut the hair, got the wardrobe and put it all together.”
It’s not a carbon copy, but for fans starved for a Queen experience, it’s the next best thing. After all, what other band can take a six-minute epic like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and perform it with all of the pomp and circumstance of the original creators?
“We’ve got to do all of the major hits, and to pull all of them off as a four-piece band, live, is quite difficult, but it’s a lot of fun, too,” Rock said. “And of course, we like to end the show with a big ending and do a couple of things that bring people to their feet. ‘We Are the Champions’ is a champion for everybody, because it’s a universal victory song.”