Black Jacket Symphony prides itself on recreating classic rock albums – both sides, straight through, none of this cherry-picking streamed songs stuff – with the painstaking detail of an orchestra.
The band from Alabama has spent the past decade unfurling note-for-note renditions of landmark albums from artists including Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty and Queen.
While it might sound like a glorified cover band, BJS takes an additional step – employing a rotating cast of singers who must sound identical to the artist being spotlighted.
With Marc Martel, the frontman who will handle the gymnastic vocals of Freddie Mercury when BJS visits Atlanta Symphony Hall on Friday to unveil Queen’s 1975 opus, “A Night at the Opera,” they’ve found an exceptionally special voice.
You might not have noticed it if you saw “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Oscar-nominated film about the life of the mercurial Mercury and in fact, Martel hopes that you didn’t. But it’s his vocals, blended with master tapes of Mercury’s work, that are used in the film.
This might be Martel’s most notable intersection with Queen, but it’s not his first.
For the past seven years, Martel, 42, has fronted The Queen Extravaganza, the official Queen tribute created by the band’s drummer, Roger Taylor.
The busy Martel, the Canadian son of a pastor and choir director mother who launched his career with the ‘90s-era Christian rock band Downhere – they released 10 albums before going on hiatus in 2013 – will spend the rest of February and March belting with BJS.
“As much as I want 2019 to be a year of releasing my own music,” he said, “if all goes well it will be a very Queen-y year for me.”
In an interview at the time of "Bohemian Rhapsody"'s release, Martel talked with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Kaedy Kiely of The River 97.1 (listen to it here) about his vocal involvement in the movie, performing with Black Jacket Symphony and the most challenging Queen song to sing.
Q: Who discovered your vocal similarity to Freddie?
A: Probably my bass player in the early 2000s. I remember him saying, "You need to check out these Queen guys." I had gotten that (suggestion) a few times from people coming to our shows, I was vaguely aware of Queen from "Wayne's World," but I did not grow up listening to them at all.
Q: So for the movie, what we’re hearing is a mixture of you and Freddie (from master tapes)?
A: The whole point is that people can't tell when it's not Freddie…It's a weird thing. The whole point is to remain unknown as far as my involvement in the movie goes. If people can tell it's me, I probably could have done a better job!
Q: Did you get to spend much time with (Queen guitarist) Brian May?
A: A little bit. He's super kind and unassuming, as you'd hope someone like that would be. He's kind of the reluctant rock star. He's this incredible guitar player, totally imaginative songwriter. He's like the quiet genius onstage.
Q: You were part of The Queen Extravaganza, the official tribute band of Queen. Did that give you an inside track to being part of the movie?
A: (Queen drummer) Roger (Taylor) sent out an email for open auditions to anyone in North America. The tagline was, "Quit your day job, join a rock band." I had dreamed of, what if Queen ever heard me and thought I had something special? There's a lot of people in the world that are bound to sound like Freddie Mercury. My wife pushed me to audition. (I kept thinking), if I were to win this, I have this other band, and she said, "You gotta do it" and I won the position of lead singer. That did a lot to dictate the musical course of my life … Having a relationship with Queen was the whole point. I've been working with them since 2012. I have a relationship with them, which is kinda crazy to say eight years later.
Q: You mentioned you didn’t listen to much Queen growing up, so who were some of your influential artists?
A: George Michael, U2, Top 40 stuff. When George Michael released "Listen Without Prejudice," I was developing my voice and he was my first go-to as far as how to use your voice. My younger brother pushed me into the world of rock when grunge started in the early '90s. (But I also) liked Richard Marx and New Kids on the Block. I shamelessly can sing the falsetto in New Kids on the Block. When George Michael released "Listen Without Prejudice," I was developing my voice. He was my first go-to as far as how to use your voice.
Q: You’ll be doing “A Night at the Opera” with Black Jacket Symphony. How did you hook up with them?
A: They were the first project I ever did that branched out from the Queen Extravaganza. For the first five or six years, even though I was getting other offers from promoters to do Queen material, I would turn them down. I was like, "No. I reserve my Queen work for Queen Extravaganza." In 2016 I hired a new manager and the first thing he told me was to stop turning down work! Soon after that I got a call from (manager and member of BJS) Jason Rogoff who says, "I've got this band in Birmingham, Alabama. We perform classic rock albums start to finish. We wanted to do 'A Night at the Opera' but don't have a singer." So for the first time, I said yes to my first foray outside of the Queen Extravaganza.
Q: What is the most challenging song on that album for you to do? Is it “Bohemian Rhapsody?
A: It's honestly not that hard. There's a reason it's so popular because people can sing along to it. "The Prophet's Song," it's very prog-rock, very Brian May. It's got that middle part that is all about me and that echo. It takes a while to get my head around that song.
Q: What is your favorite Queen song to sing in general?
A: "Under Pressure" is probably the most fun to sing. It's the one chance I get to sing with someone else. We usually get a guest singer (to perform it with me).
Q: What is like fronting Black Jacket Symphony?
A: I was also the guitar player in my old band, so I never really developed frontman performance (skills) with them. But with the Queen (Extravaganza), I was thrown into the deep end of, you have to be a frontman now; you have to be OK roaming the stage with nothing in your hand. I try to give a tip of the hat every now and then to Freddie and his movements. You have to be extremely animated or people will say you're nothing like Freddie. But it's such a tightrope…I don't dress up. That's the line I draw in every performance. I'm never trying to be Freddie. I will never don the mustache or take the mic stand apart.
Melissa Ruggieri has covered music and entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2010 and created the Atlanta Music Scene blog. She's kept vampire hours for more than two decades and remembers when MTV was awesome.