Tribute band gives royal treatment to Queen
January 3, 2014
Mike McManus is a fan of Queen guitarist Brian May and for 9 ½ years, has emulated the axeman in a tribute band called Queen Nation.
The band — McManus, vocalist Gregory Finsley as Freddie Mercury, drummer Pete Burke as Roger Taylor and bassist Parker Combs as John Deacon — is on a mission to carry on the musical torch and pay homage to the golden age of vintage Queen concerts.
Queen Nation will wrap up a two-night run at the Egyptian Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 4, and show why there aren’t many Queen tribute bands in the United States.
"There are maybe three tributes, and I think it’s because accurately playing a Queen song is a hard task," McManus said during a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Calif. "There are many Journey and AC/DC tributes, but not too many Queen ones, because those are some big shoes to fill."
Queen Nation was formed in 2004 by an agent named Dave Hewitt because of the slim pickings when it came to Queen tribute bands.
"The singer at the time was a guy named Joe Retta, who knew a bass player and drummer," McManus said. "They also had two other guitarists who were in the band."
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Those two guitarists didn’t make the cut because they "bit off more than they could chew," McManus said.
"They thought they were going to sit down and play some Queen songs, but when it came down to learn them, they went, ‘Oh boy! This is more difficult than advertised,’ he said.
McManus entered the scene thanks to an old friend and Park City resident Tony Oros.
"Our drummer Pete was playing in a band called Metal Dogs, with Tony at Liquid Joe’s down in Salt Lake City, at the time," McManus said. "Pete told Tony that he was trying to get this tribute up and running but couldn’t find the right guitar player."
Oros, in turn, told Burke about McManus.
"Tony told Pete that my favorite guitarist was Brian May, and that I modeled my playing style after him, which was all true," McManus said. "Pete gave my information to Joe, who called me."
The musicians met one time and played the Queen hit, "Tie Your Mother Down."
"We looked at each other and said ‘OK, this is going to work,’" McManus said.
But that incarnation didn’t last. Retta left a few years ago after he was called to join one of the incarnations of Sweet, a ’70s glam band that is famous for the hits "Fox on the Run," "Ballroom Blitz" and "Love Is Like Oxygen."
During this time, McManus had been in touch with a guy named Gregory Finsley, a singer of another Queen tribute band out of Dallas called Queen for a Day.
"To make a long story not as long, we ended up booking a Napa Valley gig in Northern California, so my bassist and I decided to drive up there from L.A.," McManus said. "Our drummer flew in from Alaska and we picked him up at the San Francisco airport and Gregory flew in from Dallas and we picked him up at Oakland."
The four, who had never been in one place at the same time, arrived at the venue, but didn’t have time to do a rehearsal or even a short run-through.
"We did the ‘One, two, three! Let’s Go!" and played the show," McManus said. "I remember thinking if the show tanked because we didn’t rehearse, we would be in a whole lot of hurt."
Luckily it turned out great, not only for the band, but also for the audience.
"The next week I Googled us and looked up some reviews and blogs," McManus said. "There was a blog from a woman who went to the show just to goof on us, which is something we get a lot."
The woman confessed she wanted to hate Queen Nation because Queen was her favorite band, and ended up doing a 180-degree turn.
"The title of her blog was ‘As Good as It Gets,’" McManus said. "And we knew we passed the test."
Since then, Queen Nation has grown in popularity and in 2013, the band ended up playing 65 shows in 40 weekends, McManus said.
It played Angel Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team, during the team’s Flashback Weekend after a game and the next night played a show in Atlanta, Ga.
"We’ve played everywhere from Seattle to Ensenada and various state fairs and festivals," McManus said. "We’ll play anywhere anyone will write us a check."
Queen Nation was also recognized as The World’s Greatest Queen Tribute by Mark Cuban and Ryan Seacrest, and was given a one-hour, live, national broadcast from the Roxy in Hollywood to 40 million viewers.
The popularity is a testament to the band members’ chemistry.
"We all know our parts inside and out and play the songs because we truly love them," McManus said. "We never just go through the motions or call it in. These songs have been important to people for the past 40 years and that’s not something we take lightly."
Original Queen songs are known for their big, multi-track overdubs and layering, thanks to producer Roy Thomas Baker, and McManus knows some of the studio versions can’t be played live.
"So what I decided to do was to compare the live albums and studio albums to single out some signature solos and riffs that the band wasn’t doing live," McManus said. "I basically learned these leads off the studio albums to put into our own show. So our performances are kind of a halfway meeting between the live songs and the studio songs."
The most difficult song from Queen Nation to perform is "Bicycle Race," a Top-20 hit in 1978.
"The band never played the full song live," McManus said. "They would just do a short version as part of a medley, so we play it as close to the way it is on the studio record."
Like many songs in the Queen catalog, "Bicycle Race" is one of those pieces where McManus can’t afford to screw up.
"If I did that the whole song would fall apart," he said, laughing. "Which brings me to the reason why we never drink anything before going on stage."
One of the biggest conundrums for Queen Nation was finding a way to cover the operatic epic, "Bohemian Rhapsody."
"You know that middle part with all the vocals and ‘Galileos’ is impossible to play live," McManus said. "In fact, what Queen used to do when they played the song in concert was leave the stage and play a tape of that part before coming back for the coda.
"We, as a cover band, can’t legally play the original version of the tape, nor does it look good for us to leave the stage during one of our shows, so we leave that part out and take the song up from the guitar solo and go from there," he said. "In the 9 ½ years of doing this, we’ve had maybe 10 people gripe, but when we tell them why, they are OK with it."
McManus was drawn to Brian May’s guitar sound because of its tone.
"I like Brian the same reasons why I like guys like George Harrison, Neal Schon of Journey and Elliott Easton of The Cars," he said. "They would take eight-measures within a song and almost create another song with their guitar solos."
McManus also likes playing the songs because they make him work for his paycheck.
"There is something anthemic about Queen songs and they are always fun to play," he said. "You can’t take liberties with Queen songs, because if we did, the audience would tar and feather us.
"We love our audiences and wouldn’t want them in that situation," McManus said. "We always come out and shake hands with everyone after a show and take pictures and talk about Queen, because at the end of the day, we’re just four Queen geeks."
Queen Nation, a tribute to the music of Queen, will wrap up its Park City appearances at the Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., on Saturday, Jan. 4, at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $29 to $50 and are available by visiting http://www.parkcityshows.com.