Friday, July 25, 2014

Queen + Adam Lambert: In Concert!

I wrote on my personal Facebook page a few weeks back that every four years in July, Brian May and I get together to celebrate his birthday. Obviously this post wasn't entirely true: alas Dr. May has no idea about the interesting timing of our two encounters but that doesn't change the fact that on July 19, 2014 (Dr. May's 67th birthday and nearly four years to the day from the time I had the amazing opportunity to meet him), I saw Brian May and Roger Taylor performing as Queen in concert!

Rumors of this current North American tour began to circulate ages ago. You may recall that as early as 2010, Foo Fighter and massive Queen fan, Taylor Hawkins started talking about a tour. Unfortunately that particular matchup didn't come to pass but the whispering continued. I caught wind of them early on and vowed right then and there that if they scheduled a date anywhere near me, I was going. I missed out in 2005 when I was on my "but it's not Queen without Freddie" high horse and then their 2008 tour didn't even include a visit to the States. Honestly, Brian and Roger could have announced that they were touring with a bunch of singing rattlesnakes and I'd have made it my business to be there. (Although blech - maybe not rattlesnakes!)

As it turns out Brian and Roger decided to connect with American Idol veteran Adam Lambert for a North American tour, which began earlier this summer. Reception to this news on the major Queen fan front was - to put it mildly - mixed. Many felt that touring with anyone besides Freddie (and, of course, reclusive bassist John Deacon) was blasphemy. Others felt that a tour was fine but just not with someone whom they considered the very embodiment of a "C-lebrity", a song from the Queen + Paul Rodgers album released a few years back. Then there was the contingency of which I was a part: generally younger fans who sadly had no opportunity to see Queen in their heyday and realize that with both Brian and Roger firmly into their 60s, the reality of a tour is rapidly decreasing by the day.

When they released the dates, I was ecstatic: Madison Square Garden in NYC, TD Garden in Boston, and - ohmygosh, in my very own backyard - Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut! I dug out my rarely used American Express card to qualify for presale tickets and tasked ever-humoring Husband to purchase three tickets to the show. Presale, unfortunately, did not go smoothly. Tickets had been released in groups of 2 so a request for 3 was downright impossible: the system kept saying "none available"! Eek! Finally Husband snagged 2 tickets for me and a fellow fanatic friend and set out to find a single ticket for himself. The whole process was ridiculously nerve-wracking and made worse by the fact that tons of VIP tickets were available for several hundred dollars a pop. If it had just been me and Husband I probably would have paid the premium to get floor seats but I wasn't sure how high my friend was willing to go so we stuck with the regular seats. Finally, Husband got a ticket for himself and all systems were a go.

Of course literally the next day they announced a second date in Connecticut to account for the unexpected demand: that show is next Friday and tickets are still available. Argggg!

We booked a babysitter and made reservations to eat at Bar Americain (Bobby Flay's restaurant) before the show. To say I was nervous on Saturday was a bit of an understatement! I knew for sure that this concert was a once in a lifetime experience and I hoped everything went off without a hitch. Thankfully, it did! Dinner was delicious and just the right amount of food. I even treated myself to a frosty beverage to hopefully take the edge off a bit! We explored the casinos a while and I found my favorites: penny slots! I'm just about the cheapest person in the world and the idea of plopping down money that I'm just going to lose in five seconds makes me ill. With penny slots, I played the same $20 all evening before I lost it!

When it was time to go to the arena, there was a huge crowd gathered. Security was kind of a mess: they had male officers frisking male attendees and female officers further up the line frisking the ladies and checking bags. Seems like it might have made more sense to split up men and women or at least have some sort of signage indicating that was the procedure. While we waited, I checked out the makeup of the crowd which was very interesting. There were lots of older folks, but not older in the sense that "Brian and Roger are in their 60s and still awesome older"; it was more like "I'm going to hit the buffet at the golf club before nap older". I also spotted a fair number of families: parents in their 40s-50s with teenage-ish kids. The older generation definitely had the biggest showing though.

My shirt, which I will rarely wear lest it get worn!
The admission line basically lead straight into the merchandise line, which was fine because I knew I wanted a shirt. I'd scoped them out online earlier in the week and had narrowed it down to a particular style. My friend liked another style better (and I actually did too), but it didn't have the concert dates on the back and I really wanted that feature on the shirt. Otherwise it's just a Queen shirt that I could have bought anywhere! I also wanted to snag a program for a friend in Canada who visited the Montreal show but the programs were sold out.

So we waited...and waited...and waited.

Oh my gosh we were in this line forever! The shirts were all numbered and displayed on the wall so all you had to say was, "Number 3, size Medium" and then pay, but people were taking forever! One lady in front of us would say, "Number 12, size XL", the lady would get the shirt and then the first lady would say, "Number 30, size XL." You seriously couldn't order all the styles at once?!?!! Another two ladies stood there for ten minutes holding shirts up to their backs to figure out sizing as if they had never purchased t-shirts before. And I can't even count the number of people who asked, "What's on the back of Number [whichever]?" If the back isn't displayed on the wall, it's blank, people! Geesh!

We made our way to the front and at that point had decided to combine our orders to save time. My friend dealt with the lady for literally 45 seconds and 30 of those seconds were the lady fetching our two shirts. Everyone is seriously lucky that the show didn't start in the meantime or else I think we would have totally freaked out!

View from our seats. There were two giant television
displays and then a Q in the center with a video screen.
Unfortunately, our view of the Q video was blocked by
a piece of sound equipment.
Afterwards we found our seats. I've been in this particular arena before, but I was pleasantly surprised at how small it seemed. Suddenly our seats in the middle of nowhere didn't seem to terribly far from the stage. And even better, there was a catwalk and second smaller stage well within our view!

At this point it was past 8pm and I was ready for the show to start! I was definitely a little nervous and was bouncing around in my seat trying to contain my excitement. We did use the time to take a selfie photograph since Husband wasn't sitting with us to be official photographer of the night! We also chatted up the folks next to us: the couple to our left claimed to be big fans, but didn't know it was Dr. May's birthday so we weren't sure what to make of that and then man to our right said his brother was a big fan but he didn't do much squealing so who knows! (Obviously I'm being silly with both those statements: I don't go around judging whether someone's Queen fandom is adequate...or do I?)

The show itself was, in a word, amazing. Completely and utterly amazing. The set list was perfect: a combination of tried and true classics (Another One Bites the Dust, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, and Killer Queen) and more obscure tracks that separated out the real from the casual fans (Seven Seas of Rhye, In the Lap of the Gods...Revisited, and Now I'm Here). And more importantly, the boys sounded great. Dr. May and his Red Special were in rare form and good ole Roger thundered through the songs like a drummer half his age! He did have some assistance in the form of his youngest son, Rufus, who has been performing with the band as a percussionist for the past few years. Rog definitely held his own though and it was only during one song (Tie Your Mother Down, which came very late in the set list) that he completely handed over the drumming reigns to Rufus.

I'd made a very conscious decision that I didn't want to see any video of Adam Lambert performing with the band prior to the concert. You have to understand that this meant restraining myself for ages as Adam has been performing in one-off shows with Brian and Roger for several years now. For me, I felt very strongly that I needed to make my own opinion about the collaboration and I hoped that someday I'd be able to form that opinion after watching them perform together live. That said, I thought Adam did a fine job. He very clearly understood and made it clear to the audience that he understood that the show wasn't about him. I read a review that questioned why the boys didn't throw Adam's fans a bone in the form of one of his solo songs, but I think the answer is obvious: this wasn't Queen AND Adam Lambert. This was Queen + Adam Lambert. Of all the merchandise for sale outside the arena, there was ONE Adam Lambert shirt. Out of nearly 30 different Queen variations, including several that featured Freddie Mercury. Yes, Adam Lambert's fans may have come to the show to hear him sing, but there was no question that he was there to sing Queen songs and rather proud and honored to be doing so.

Adam's certainly got a flamboyant personality, that's part of the reason why many felt he would be a good fit for a band once fronted by Freddie Mercury, one of the most outrageously flamboyant frontman ever.  He was cheeky and wore some wild costumes, but remained respectful of his stagemates the entire evening. At one point, Dr May asked the crowd how we liked the "new guy" and his bashfulness at our polite applause seemed rather genuine.

Speaking of bashfulness, however, I'd be lying if I didn't say that my favorite part of the show was the middle section where Adam took a lengthy break. It began with Adam announcing that it was Dr. May's birthday and we all sang "Happy Birthday" to him. I'm including Husband's videos because he had a slightly better position in the crowd and has a better camera on his phone (and if you listen closely to the second video below, you can hear him singing along!!) Oh my gosh I seriously could not love this man more! As we sang, he made his way down the catwalk to the smaller stage and I knew immediately that some wonderful things were about to happen!

I was not disappointed. The next song was one that I've always wanted to see performed live because of its sing-along component: Love of My Life. The history behind this song is that Queen embarked on a world tour in 1980-1981. When they arrived in South America, this song (though released several years prior on the Night at the Opera album) was a huge hit and audiences demanded that the band play it. They complied and the crowd would sing along, often drowning out Freddie himself. When the band returned to North America (to film their iconic Queen: Rock Montreal concert), they included it in the set list, not realizing it wasn't quite the hit up north. This led to a very sweet exchange between Freddie and Brian about one verse into the song where Freddie says, "they don't know it!" From that point on, however, the song became fan favorite all over the world and has been a staple in the band's set list for decades. Now, of course, Dr. May both sings and plays guitar on this song and the emotion in his voice is evident. He asked us to sing along and promised us a "treat" at the end if we performed well. I'm not ashamed to admit that I definitely shed a tear while singing along to this one and I was horrified to see how many people made a beeline to the restrooms during this song! I think we should have locked them out! How could you walk out on this beautiful moment?

Although it was rather predictable, the "treat" at the end was a video of Freddie singing the final portion of the song. Yup, the tears were definitely flowing at that point!

The mini-set ended with Roger joining Dr. May for another one of my favorites: '39! Oh how I love this song and I greatly enjoyed singing along to this one as well. It really is a perfect example of what a dork Dr. May is though: he went into this whole elaborate explanation about how the song is a folk song set in outer space and then said we were going on a mission into space. Oh my gosh - talk about adorkable! Then they headed back to the main stage where Roger sang his signature contribution: Days of Our Lives, another one that tugs on the heartstrings of those fans who remember and loved Freddie so much.

Overall, I was very pleased with the concert. I was thrilled when later (on the closer stage, no less) they played Under Pressure. I didn't recall that one being on the set lists and as you may recall it holds a special place in my heart for being the song that showcases what an amazing musician Roger is. He sang his part as strong as ever and I swear for a minute it sounded like David Bowie had shown up! I was a little sad that Rog didn't get to sing lead on Radio GaGa, but I greatly enjoyed his dueling drum solo with Rufus! That was definitely not on the set list!

The one song I really did wish they had played was It's Late, my absolute favorite Queen song. They only ever played it live a few times in the 1970s so I knew this one was a long shot but I think it would have been amazing to hear. Maybe next time, eh boys?

I don't regret for a minute going to the show and several times just closed my eyes and enjoyed the fact that I was in the same room with Dr. May and Roger Taylor listening to them play music. It was completely surreal. And, again, I shed another tear during the encore as they played We are the Champions and I realized that this was the last song I'd likely ever hear them play live. (Unless I go back for tonight's show, which I totally might skip town and do!) It was truly a magical evening with two of my favorite musicians!

**NOTE** I've linked to my previous posts for each song on the set list that I featured as a Queen Song of the Week. I highly recommend that you go back and listen to the original recordings and live versions of those songs as they really are masterpieces that showcase the talents of four of the most iconic and diverse musicians of the 20th century!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Tons of fun at Dutch Wonderland!

Every year since Toddler O was born he and I have made the 10 hour journey to my hometown to visit my parents and sister. Because the drive is so long I am constantly trying to figure out ways to break up the trip or, even better, find a driving companion. The first year, Toddler O was a wee babe and just slept and nursed alternately for the entire trip. We stopped in my parents' hometown, where some relatives still lived, and then my parents drove to the Virginia boarder to see us the final three hours.

The second summer was even more awesome. We drove to Philadelphia with Husband who was there for work. Then we drove three hours alone before again meeting my parents at the Virginia boarder. Then my whole family drove with us to New Jersey for a wedding where we met Husband who drove with us the final few hours the following day.

This year we specifically planned the trip at a time when Husband had to be in D.C. and North Carolina for work. We drove to the Virginia boarder to meet my parents, but then Husband drove from D.C. to my parents' house to spend a few days. Then we all drove home together.

It's nice having company on the road and completely awesome when I don't have to drive. Toddler O was a rough driving companion this year because he talks constantly and doesn't stop talking until you figure out what he's saying and acknowledge it.

This is a typical conversation with Toddler O right now:

Toddler O: "Horses! I see horses."

Me: Looking around for horses and seeing none.

Toddler O: "Do you see horses, mommy?"

Me: "Where?"

Toddler O: "In the barn. Horses in the barn: do you see it?"

Me: "Ah yes. I see them." (realizing that in his mind barn = horse)

Toddler O: "Good."

And so on with each and every thing he laid eyes on for the entire trip. Oi!

Husband initially suggested breaking up the trip home by stopping at Sesame Place outside Philadelphia. I did a little research and decided that (1) it was ridiculously expensive: for the three of us to just walk in the gate it would have been $150+! and (2) it wasn't really something Toddler O would be into since it's mostly waterpark. I thought he might be a bit young. I poked around online a little more and came across Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Randomly a girlfriend from high school lives in the Lancaster area so I emailed her to ask if she'd been to Dutch Wonderland and if her two year old liked it there. She emailed back right away that they love this particular park so that was enough for me. We decided right then and there to drive five hours to Lancaster, visit Dutch Wonderland and then drive the remaining five hours home the following day.

Dutch Wonderland was, in a word, adorable. I'd read online that it wasn't your typical amusement park: for example, there's a big ole cornfield at the edge of the park! And most of the rides are geared toward the 8 and under crowd. Perfect!

Outside the castle gates on Friday evening.
One comment that Husband made as we were driving down the main road toward Dutch Wonderland is that he understands now why Disney purchased every acre of land they could get their hands on outside of Disney World. It was very weird to be driving past restaurants, outlet malls, and Amish touristy stops and then *boom* amusement park. One of the first rides we went on was a little boat that basically rode along side the road for a bit!

Anyway, one of the super cool things about Dutch Wonderland is the cost. We paid about $70 for two daily tickets (you can get them for cheaper if you buy in advance on their website): Toddler O was free, but then they offer a "free preview evening!" So for the three hours before the park closes, you can use your daily admission ticket to get into the park and then use your admission ticket again for a full day of park fun! So basically you are buying a 1.5 day ticket, which is awesome!

We got to the park at 5pm on a Friday evening and it was pretty dead. Any ride Toddler O saw, we got right on. In fact, some rides he had to sit for 5 minutes in the airplane (or whatever) while other kids wandered over to get on. No line waiting at all!

As I said, the rides are all relatively tame, but there are still some minimal height and parental supervision requirements. Toddler O ended up being an "Emerald" which meant that he could go on most rides, but needed an adult with him on most. The ride workers all had these cute little color coded measuring sticks that they'd swing around to quickly categorize a kid. Another cool thing is that some rides actually had height maximums so Toddler O had to ride alone. He felt like a pretty cool dude on those rides!

Toddler O turned out to be a bit of a daredevil like Husband. His favorite two rides would have given me fits at age 3 (or even at age 33!). The first was called the Frog Hopper. This was had spots for six kids and then one adult could fit in the middle. The dad in front of us in line decided to go and I didn't want to risk Toddler O freaking out by having to wait any longer
so I just put him on by himself. He shrieked with delight the entire time and then wanted to go on again when we passed it later! I think it helped that there was an announcement that they kids should "ribbit" like frogs so he was screaming "ribbit" the whole time too! Very cute!

The other ride Toddler O loved I had spotted while we rode the Sky Ride across the park on the first evening: the Kite Flight. I knew I had no intention of going near it but I thought Husband and Toddler O might have fun. We visited it first thing the next morning and I was right: Toddler O screamed the whole time, "I'm flying!"

This year there is a whole new section at Dutch Wonderland called Exploration Island. It had animatronic dinosaurs and Toddler O's favorite, a sandbox. He was a bit nervous about the dinosaurs on the first night but the next day he specifically asked to see them again. He still didn't want to stand alone near them though which is how I ended up in this picture with his favorite dinosaur species: triceratops (which he calls "tops").

Dutch Wonderland also has a whole water park area called Duke's Lagoon but it was randomly 60 degrees the day we visited so it was a bit too chilly to try the water park. We did decide to be brave and went on the Double Splash Fume which got us more than enough wet for the day!

One thing that I wasn't crazy about at Dutch Wonderland is that there is a decidedly carnival feel once you get through the gates. In my mind, I paid my admission so once I'm in I should get to enjoy everything for free. Not so. They had pony rides for $6/ride (luckily I was more into Toddler O riding a pony than he actually was so we skipped it); face painting for $10 and up (!!!?!?), and lots of carnival games. As we passed one game, Toddler O saw a little girl choosing a rubber duck out of a pond. He started screaming: he wanted to choose a duck too. He didn't even care about the prize or know it was a game: he just wanted to pick up a stupid duck. $2 later he had chosen a duck and won this stupid little stuffed animal (it was one of those "everybody wins" games) that promptly went into my diaper bag and he hasn't mentioned since. Ugh - at least it was only $2!

As we left, I just had to hit up the gift shop. I'm such a sucker for gift shops, especially when Toddler O is at his current age of actually starting to remember things. I figure having a souvenir or two to jog his memory is a good thing. I found him a cute Duke the Dragon shirt, a magnet (which we always get when we visit someone), and this adorable Dutch Wonderland board game modeled after Candy Land. All told, I spent about $35 which I didn't think was too pricey.

We also splurged on one last treat before we went home: Dole Whips!

"What?" you might say, "I thought Dole Whips were only at Disney World!"

Apparently Disney World and Dutch Wonderland both appreciate the glory of a Dole Whip. Although I goofed again while ordering and got the orange swirl flavor instead of the pineapple swirl flavor (you may recall that while at Disney I first ordered the Dole Whip sans swirl which, while delicious, is not as glorious as the Dole Whip swirl). The orange flavor was still tasty though and Toddler O was just happy to have a big ole cone of ice cream. We've decided that from now on Dutch Wonderland will be a midpoint stop in our trip to Virginia so maybe by our 7th or 8th visit, I'll finally order the Dole Whip that I actually want to eat!

So if you ever find yourself passing through the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area and you have kids, definitely stop by Dutch Wonderland. It's a really sweet place and Toddler O is still talking about it!