They were, to this point, a little unkempt. A little nervous beforehand. Lacking their familiar glam polish. There was no mustache yet for Freddie Mercury. Roger Taylor’s hair is a touseled mop. Going on stage, they could have been, it seems, any other band of the era.
But something else happens under the lights on the Rainbow, a hometown club — something amazing. Brian May and Taylor begin creating this startling racket, even as John Deacon builds a muscular foundation. And Mercury, it’s clear even then, is a shooting star captured inside a white cape. When he soars through the chorus of “Now, I’m Here,” it serves as both bold introduction and confirmation of his soon-to-be status as an international celebrity.
This was the pre-synth era for Queen, a period — as heard on “Ogre Battle,” “Seven Seas of Rhye” and “Stone Cold Crazy” — of metallic riffs, prog-ish themes and impossibly large choruses. In keeping, Live at the Rainbow ’74 is edgy and raw, as bracing as any live Queen performance ever released. Every song serves as a revelation of just how tough this group actually was, prior to the outsized conceptualizations of “Bohemian Rhapsody” still to come.
Those layered subsequent triumphs, not to mention a move toward mainstream pop, tended to obscure what came before, when Queen was closer to its ratty bar-band roots, when it could roar and rip with anybody out there. The visceral, awe-inspiringly loud Live at the Rainbow ’74, then, is the flip side of a considered masterpiece like Night at the Opera: Call it a portrait of a band simply letting loose.