By Simone Goldstone | Soundcheck Columnist
When I pulled into the brightly lit OC Fair parking lot from the 55 freeway, I had only two things on my mind: the late Queen vocalist and showman Freddie Mercury and how our unprecedented, drive-in concert experience would pan out.
The OC Fair was a bit different this year. Due to the global pandemic that has threatened the very fabric of our working lives, and leisure time, adjustments were to be made.
Queen Nation, dubbed the #1 Queen tribute band, took the outdoor, parking-lot stage and transformed it into a drive-in time warp. Hailing from Ventura, the band was an incredible selection for the fair. The film “Bohemian Rhapsody” had sky-rocketed Queen fans from their passé fondness into large-scale public displays of devotion. Friday night at the fair was warmly embraced as a time of unity, celebration, and good, old fashion Rock n Roll.
Pulling into the parking lot, we were immediately and enthusiastically greeted by attendants who ushered our car into the lot. They gave us free bottles of water and donned our car with a strip of red tape. They were so thrilled by our arrival that I worried we might be the only ones here.
“Red team, Red Team, Red Team!” the concert ushers chanted and pointed us to where more ushers waved their glowing wands and herded the cars like prized cattle. Our late-night mecca awaited just beyond a blue Toyota.
My jaw dropped in awe at the laser light show that greeted us further down the parking lot. Bright lights exploded into the dark sky, spotlights illuminated the massive stage, and large screens situated in each corner of the lot amplified the atmosphere.
Cars everywhere were lined up, spilling with people and couples. Some wise groups had backed in with their trunk doors open and sat in the back of their SUVs. Others perched on the hood of their cars, and more leaned against their doors.
We were guided to the “red tape” section, where we parked right in front of a large screen and speaker.
The concert began, and Queen Nation launched into their first number, an upbeat and energetic performance of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” It was strange to think they weren’t lip syncing. It was perfectly polished and so accurate that it could have been straight off the Queen CD.
We had two options for sound: we could roll down our windows and listen live, or tune to the synced FM radio station. We listened live and found the sound crystal-clear. It felt akin to a time-warp. Not only did it have the vintage vibes of a drive-in movie, but the band looked exactly like their Queen counterparts.
This was not just a tribute band: it was a replicated experience for those who missed their chance to see the original. Every band member’s appearance and movement were reproduced down to the most minute detail. Even the cadence of speech was mimicked perfectly.
Gregory Finsley, who took the role of Freddie, spoke with the same fancy British accent and intonation as the original front man. He even wore a Superman Tank, just like Freddie himself did in the 1980s.
People started to venture out of their cars to dance as they adjusted to the setting. Startlingly enough, instead of applause after each song came a chorus of car honks. After setting the mood, the group followed up with a poignant rendition of “Bicycle Race,” a song about not getting pulled into the political storms that divide our countries. “You say John, I say Wayne. I don’t want to be the president of America. Income tax, I say Jesus, I don’t wanna be a candidate for Vietnam or Watergate.”
It was a hint to not pay attention to the shifting, supercharged tides that split us up, but to come together for this concert where we’re all comrades of the music of Queen.
Mike McManus, the guitarist, wore the same outrageously curly shag as Brian May. He was so authentic that even his guitar was a replica of the famous Red Special.
By the time we got out of the car to have a closer view, we were met by groups dancing on the pavement and we did the same. I almost wished we wore poodle skirts, as it felt so much like a retro drive in.
The group played the familiar big hits, though they did not play any deep tracks that hard-core fans might have been hoping for. However, they did play a spectacular rendition of early Queen with “Doing All Right.”
The number that was sorely missing from their set was “Love of My Life,” although “Fat Bottomed Girls” and “Under Pressure” were enough to take me from leaning against the car to up and dancing. “Under Pressure” was a huge highlight; it would have made Freddie proud.
My favorite song of the night was “Radio Ga Ga.” The setlist included hits like “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You,” “Somebody to Love,” and “Killer Queen.”
“We Are the Champions” closed the show. I was sad at the lack of an encore because I enjoyed the show so much. The ending felt a bit abrupt.
Separated in our cars, we lost a bit of that feeling of unity that comes with finding other fans to further our fantasy of being at a bone fide Queen concert. However, we felt united in a different way: all experiencing and navigating this new way of concert-going together.
The trick is who you bring in your group. Like all things in life, it is what you make of it. You can either lament about not dancing in sea of bodies and sulk at the lack of lighters waving in the night, or you can pretend you’re at a real Queen concert and make the privacy of your car feel like an exclusive VIP room.
If this is the new age of music, I could get used to it. Queen Nation did a fantastic job of playing an energetic show to an audience of automobiles.
If you want to relive an age of music you missed, you certainly haven’t missed anything with Queen Nation.
Drive-in concerts at the OC Fair continue Oct. 16-18.
Sweet and Tender Hooligans (a tribute to Morrisey and the Smiths) perform Oct. 16. Showtimes are 6:30 and 9 p.m. Tickets are $75 to $199 per car.
Queen Nation returns on Oct. 17 for one show only at 9 p.m. Tickets are $75 to $199 per car.
Jefferson Starship performs Oct. 18. Showtimes are 6 and 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $69 to $175 per car.
For tickets and more information on the concerts and venue, visit https://www.autosonicconcerts.com.