As keyboardist and Musical Director of the Queen Extravaganza, Darren Reeves will be going out on the road early in 2023 for the twice re-arranged UK and European tour of Queen’s official tribute band. In an updated interview originally published in the winter 2021 issue of the Official International Queen Fan Club magazine, Darren and Dave Fordham began by discussing his previous role in We Will Rock You’s house band in London.
This article is reproduced with permission and the full version is available in the fan club’s members-only archive. For Dave’s exclusive interview in the winter 2022 magazine with Lenny Zakatek, vocalist in John Deacon’s solo venture The Immortals, join the fan club now at www.queenworld.com.
How did becoming a keyboardist in We Will Rock You (WWRY) at the Dominion come about in 2007?
Rather than musical theatre, I am from a rock and roll touring background so after I’d played the lead role in Billy Joel's musical Movin' Out, the only other musical I wanted to do was WWRY because it was a mixture of the two worlds.
I’d toured the world with Abba tribute band Björn Again and performed a few times with Susie Webb and Zoe Nicholas [also of the Fabba Girls, SAS Band and Brian May Band]. At Susie’s birthday party, I met Spike Edney, Neil Murray and WWRY guitarist Alan Darby. I had a long chat with Neil and he approached me shortly after about the WWRY Assistant Musical Director role. I said I’d love to play on the show but followed my instincts and declined the assistant MD role having never directed a West End show or anything as big as WWRY. So Neil spoke to the keyboard guys, I sat in, studied the music for about three weeks and then did my first performance.
Were you playing alongside Spike?
I was invited in to make life easier for Spike and play when he couldn’t be there. I quickly became one of his main covers, performing at least once a week and sometimes two, three or four times.
Spike puts an arm around you and that’s something he definitely did for me when I became part of the family. We really hit it off and have a mutual respect.
How did the dynamic of a WWRY show change when Brian or Roger were present?
For all the performers at a musical there is a lot of repetition, so when Roger and Brian were there it really broke it up and made all the groundhog days pale into insignificance.
Roger would come up to the band room with Spike and talk to everybody.
I remember the first time I was told that Brian was in. I’d just done the intro to One Vision and he came up and sat next to me on a piano stool. I had played in front of important people before but this was something special! When he appeared to play Bohemian Rhapsody solo I could see him from where I was and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up! They are no words to describe it – it’s as good as it gets and it’s for those moments that I do this job. The audience couldn’t control themselves and the room was electric.
Did Brian and Roger’s influence lead to the house band being more integral to proceedings than in a standard musical?
Yes - without any shadow of a doubt. WWRY had a massive influence on the West End because many of those musicians wouldn’t have done a musical but for Brian and Roger and have since gone on to perform in numerous other shows.
How would you summarise your time with WWRY?
When I was 12, my uncle took me to see Time at the Dominion and that night I decided I wanted a career in rock and roll theatre. When I played my first night at WWRY, I could see the exact seats we’d sat in and I’d gone full circle to being on stage playing Queen. You couldn’t write it.
I am so proud to have been a part of the WWRY world; it was an experience I treasure. I did my last performance about a week before it closed and there was an empty hole in my life for the rest of that year.
Were you surprised to hear WWRY will return to the West End in 2023 and will you be involved?
I knew nothing about it until it was announced! I’ve had no discussions but if the opportunity was there then I’d love to work on it again, of course I would. My world is musical theatre as well as rock and roll touring and for me, WWRY is the perfect example of those worlds colliding.
Soon after WWRY’s original run, in your opinion what was the motivation for Roger, Brian and Spike to put together an official Queen tribute band?
It’s good to do something different and that’s why the Queen Extravaganza stands so well separately alongside WWRY. Perhaps the Queen Extravaganza was conceived in 2011 as the next step after WWRY because Brian and Roger didn’t think they’d be touring as Queen anymore…
Were you approached immediately after WWRY in 2014 to join the Queen Extravaganza (QuEx) as keyboardist?
I didn’t know much about QuEx and was approached three times before I ended up joining for the Australian and UK tours in 2015 to initially cover for Brandon Ethridge, the QuEx keyboardist and Musical Director who had been offered a role in School of Rock on Broadway. So I didn’t know quite what I was getting involved in apart from having previously heard the WWRY guys talk about how Roger and Spike had another project.
With guitarist Nick Radcliffe who I knew already from WWRY, I met Tyler Warren [drummer and MD], Marc Martel [lead vocals] and Francois-Olivier Doyon [bass] for the first time in Brisbane and within 48 hours we already all had a really close bond.
It was a whirlwind experience and the chemistry between all five of us was unbelievable from the first night.
How different was it to perform Queen music with QuEx rather than WWRY?
I quickly realised that the songs had been ‘musical theatred’ for WWRY whereas QuEx performed Queen like nothing I had experienced before. It was how to perform Queen to the absolute maximum and was all driven by Tyler with Spike and Roger behind him.
For WWRY I was given the music to play but I still sat down and wrote out the chord structures to every song because I needed to know them in my head before I performed. The WWRY band could read it, play it and people could hear it… but it was the cast that were performing it to the audience, not us. With QuEx, we are the cast and for me, it’s about my performance telling a story and not just keyboard playing or singing.
Rather than deputising for Brandon on future tours, you ended up staying with QuEx?
We were so tight as a band and I think it was my vocals as well as keyboards that they wanted me back for. They were so insistent and it was a compliment.
So it was important for all the QuEx members to contribute vocally?
QuEx started off with nine members because Roger and Brian thought they were not going to get musicians that could all sing. But over time Nick came in and I came in as much as a singer as a keyboard player. Tyler and Francois are the most phenomenal vocalists and with Marc at the front of it at that time, it was surreal how good we were.
More so than in WWRY, are you able to put your own stamp on the keyboards?
Yes, because WWRY was all scored out. With QuEx we still have to be very respectful and as close to the original as possible, but I try and create a hybrid of the studio recording with what Queen did live with Freddie and what Queen do live now with Adam Lambert. If I put in little nuggets of what Freddie or Spike performed that wasn’t on the record, it’s still Queen. So I don’t make anything up, but I make choices…
During QuEx’s A Night of the Opera 2015 anniversary tour, was it challenging to play the deeper cuts compared to a greatest hits set?
To be honest, I hadn’t been exposed to some of those deep cuts at that time so I was playing songs I’d known for three months to people that had been listening to them for 40 years! We have official access to the original recordings to be able to take it to the nth degree, and I was able to work out and write down what was being played one note at a time. Morning, noon and night, I listened and learned those tracks until they became the greatest hits in my head.
The Hammersmith show on that tour in 2016 was massive for me because I’d been to a lot of concerts there and the venue was so engrained in Queen history. As Roger and Spike introduced us, I was totally inspired. Roger then put his hand on my shoulder and said sincerely: “Darren - best of luck”. For that to happen just once in your life is unbelievable! But then Spike puts his hand on my shoulder and said: “Don’t f*ck it up!”. So that was all that was echoing in my head as I started the intro to Death on Two Legs!
Do you have a favourite song to perform with QuEx?
My personal favourite is The Show Must Go On because shortly after seeing us play at The Pavilions in Plymouth in 2016, my Uncle who took me to Time passed away; we were very close and I had the emotional experience of singing The Show Must Go On at his funeral and memorial service.
I also lost my mother suddenly this year; she was a big inspiration to me and I played No One But You (Only The Good Die Young) on piano at her funeral.
Songs can take on new meanings personally and globally and you connect with them.
How do the QuEx audience receptions differ across the various continents?
There’s something very special about a Queen audience – they are always brilliant and I mean it as a compliment when I say the receptions are all exactly the same; the music transcends everyone and there’s always a phenomenal atmosphere. It’s the same with a Q+AL show or a Roger Taylor show. Their music is genius and very infectious.
Do any QuEx shows stand out for you particularly?
As well as Hammersmith and those Australian concerts, São Paulo in 2019 stands out for me, not just for the performance but because Alirio Netto [vocalist on that tour], Nick Radcliffe and I visited the Interlagos race circuit and as a Formula One fanatic, I ended up driving the circuit in a Ford Focus!
How was the QuEx show at Freddie’s 70th birthday party in Montreux in 2016?
Definitely up there. We hadn’t done a concert for nine months and it was being broadcast live globally without us having rehearsed together! But it turned out to be the most wonderful experience and we thrived under the pressure. The energy and love in the room was something I hadn’t experienced before.
How involved are Brian, Roger and Spike in QuEx these days?
Roger and Spike are as involved as they’ve ever been. Brian attends shows and it was the thing dreams are made of when he came up on stage with us at Gloucester in 2015 and put his arm around me. That’s what I feel about the Queen world of Brian, Roger, Spike and the team around them - they’ve put their arms around me and I feel that all the time.
What will be the line-up for the rearranged QuEx 2023 tour?
At the time of this interview, there are no decisions on the line-up but along with Roger and Spike, I will be in charge of the music. I became MD in 2019 when Tyler was unavailable.
There will be some new faces as moving forward QuEx will have a rotating, multiple-cast line-up of world-class musicians from all over the world. Whoever is onstage is chosen by Roger and Spike who make the decisions. All will be revealed in due course!
Tyler has left some big shoes to fill?
Tyler is one of the most world-class musicians I’ve ever shared a stage with. He devotes his life to it and his dedication is phenomenal. He’s an example to all of us and I’ve learned so much from him. With no disrespect to anyone else, I’d also go as far to say that he’s the best MD I’ve ever worked with. He just has another level of musicality.
What set list can we expect on the tour?
The plan after such a long break is for the greatest hits but there are definitely some little nuggets I want to put in there. For example, I loved it when we played Spread Your Wings on the last tour.
How was it to take part in the Driven by You online recording for Brian after his heart attack in 2020, as well as other Queen-related lockdown videos during the pandemic?
Danny Gomez, the Spanish WWRY guitarist, and a drummer called Chris Allen. approached Tyler, Francois and me to be involved in Driven by You and it created a community where we started to do things with various other people. Driven by You was just such fun and was originally meant to be a birthday present to Brian as opposed to a get-well-soon message. We continued that project with a Save Me video in support of Brian’s Save Me Trust.
With Mig Ayesa [formerly Galileo with WWRY] and Nick Radcliffe, I also performed Love of My Life as well as Time with Alirio Netto. It was an absolute joy to be involved in all those projects while stuck at home… and they put a lot of smiles on faces too.
This article is © Dave Fordham and the Official International Queen Fan Club and is not to be reproduced without permission. Join the fan club at www.queenworld.com.
Many thanks to Darren for his time and to Juliette Slater for kind permission to reproduce images (© Queen Touring Ltd / photographer: Louis Goldman).
Starting in Stoke on 13 January, tickets are available for the QuEx 2023 tour at https://www.queenonline.com/quex/upcoming_shows. WWRY will have a 12-week residency at the London Coliseum from 2 June 2023 (https://www.queenonline.com/wwry).