Even the most forward-looking Top 40 diehard switches over to the oldies station every once in a while, and the first evening of the 2013 iHeartRadio Music Festival acted as that much-appreciated change-up. The Internet radio platform’s yearly gathering at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas always turns a bunch of performances of massive artists from dissimilar styles into a once-in-a-lifetime live playlist, and the lineup on Friday night (Sept. 20) once again suggested that EDM, down-home country, quirky alt-rock and bubblegum pop could all exist under one roof and dazzle one audience. While performers like Katy Perry, Chris Brown, Muse and J. Cole made their cases as enduring artists while the gargantuan showcase slithered on, a pair of wily veteran artists — Elton John and Queen — effectively stole the show, with timeless songs that music fans of all genres can sing along to. Perry may have more than a half-dozen No. 1 singles on the Hot 100, but Queen has “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” to pull out as back-to-back finales. It wasn’t a fair fight from the start.
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Of course, Queen and accomplished pop vocalist Adam Lambert had to do more than just show up and run through the rock group’s back catalog in order to earn the headlining slot over Perry on Friday night. With each new show, Lambert’s involvement with the five-decade-old band makes more sense: Freddie Mercury’s king-sized songwriting makes for a perfect vessel for Lambert’s operatic wail, and iHeartRadio fest attendees who wanted to stick around for “Another One Bites The Dust” got to witness the magnetic power of Lambert’s pristine high notes. The former “American Idol” runner-up oozed charisma as he strutted around the stage, winking at his reputation of a fill-in while also reminding people they should still pay attention to his solo career whenever this stint with Queen, er, bites the dust.
By the time that Nate Ruess and the rest of fun. joined Queen and Lambert for “Fat Bottomed Girls,” the audience seemed to pick up on how special the performance was — not just because it featured a hard-to-duplicate collaboration, but because that collaboration was uniformly excellent. Queen/Lambert was an unconventional headliner on Friday night, but Lambert’s manicured vocal blasts were able to harness rock songs that everyone in attendance knew and loved — “Bohemian Rhapsody,” anyone? — which more than than made up for the lack of a current pop star closing out the show.
Exclusive video interviews backstage at the festival:
Speaking of which, Katy Perry glided through the night’s penultimate set with ease and aplomb, her voice clearly strengthened since “Teenage Dream” but her choreography somewhat lacking. Backstage before her set, another journalist asked Perry if she was ready to perform her new album “Prism” on the iHeartRadio stage — to which Perry nervously laughed and confided that her performance would be mostly composed of past hits. There was little Katy news revealed in front of the thousands at the MGM Grand Garden Arena (Perry did debut new non-single “Dark Horse” live, with Juicy J popping onstage to rap his guest verse), and although Perry’s many, many hits would normally suffice for a show like this, the anticipation for “Prism’s” as-yet-unheard material is fervent, and the audience was a bit quiet when the set ended without any big reveals. Those in attendance were given glimpses of what we can imagine Perry’s next huge tour will look like (hint: there will be lots of crystals and prisms), but, alas, not the real thing. “Wide Awake,” “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls” are all welcome replays, but onlookers were ready for Perry to dominate the ring that she set up when she put forth “Roar.”
During the evening, Tiesto and Benny Benassi unfurled beat collections, Robin Thicke lost a shirt button while performing “Blurred Lines,” Chris Brown danced the night away during a manic medley and J. Cole won the guest-star game by bringing out Miguel for “Power Trip” and then TLC for “Crooked Smile.” But Elton John, wearing a jewel-enrusted suit and a puppy’s smile, sounded fresher than the lot, especially when delivering his performance’s centerpiece, “Tiny Dancer.” The MGM Grand Garden Area was locked in a sing-along few songs, or artists, could conjure when John dove into the staple, and when his set ended after “I’m Still Standing,” everyone watching wanted more. Can the old guard dominate the whole weekend, since Paul McCartney is expected to perform on Saturday night? Stay tuned.