By Johnny Firecloud at 5:38 PM Saturday, November 22nd 2008
Walking into the tour-closing Guns N’ Roses show in Universal City, I had good cause for the skepticism I felt. With only one original member, no new material released in over a decade and a tornado of negative hype surrounding the mere name, the modern version of Guns N’ Roses should, by all accounts, be a recipe for colossal failure.
How do you replace the dirty swagger, the serpentine energy, the explosive chemistry of the band that brought an endgame to hair metal? The vacancies left by the original members seem too vast to be occupied by anyone else, and it’s been the upside of a decade since Axl Rose’s signature wailing dominated the rock landscape. I fully expected the same ugly disappointment and vicarious embarrassment I felt while watching GNR’s “big comeback” performance on the 2002 MTV Music Awards, where my attention was split between Axl’s surgically altered wax-museum face and his embarrassingly off-key performance.
The sleaze was on ten in the Gibson Ampitheater as Suicide Girls slithered through an attempt to pass themselves off as erotic art. Nineties rockers Helmet followed offered a spot-on performance, providing the night’s more biting, darker shades, but were met with a surprisingly lukewarm reception. Third preshow act Sebastian Bach, every bit the venerial Skeletor frontman he was in Skid Row, dominated the stage as if it were his band headlining the bill, swinging his shampoo-commercial hair like it was 1989. With a set clocking in at just over an hour, Bach bled the eighties nostalgia out of the room, but I’ll admit with surprisingly little shame that I rocked the hell out to set-closer Youth Gone Wild.
Minutes after midnight, the revving intro to Welcome To The Jungle began as the crowd roared their ecstatic approval. We found ourselves strapped in and screaming down memory lane before any of us knew the engine was even running. A focused, happy-looking Axl ran around the stage like he was on fire, howling the theme song to Los Angeles as fists pumped throughout the crowd. Yes, the man actually shows up to his own concerts these days.
The setlist played out less like the Best of GNR mixtape you made in middle school and more like a greatest-hits collection, flavored with scattered gems from each album and even a few impressive selections from Chinese Democracy, the near-mythical “comeback” Guns N’ Roses record Rose has labored over since the split of the original lineup. Of the new songs presented, the most impressive by far was the tremendous Better. Delivered with jaw-dropping power, it’s a classic waiting to happen; beginning as a muted nursery-rhyme melody, it explodes into a fierce, immensely addictive rocker with the blood of Use Your Illusion.
The heat of the pyrotechnic blasts could be felt to the rafters as the band tore through ferocious renditions of It’s So Easy, Mr. Brownstone and You Could Be Mine with sharper and more layered intensity than the original lineup possessed; the trademarked slutty, throbbing energy soaked in Jack Daniel’s replaced with the slick mile-a-minute riffs and technical prowess of the finest musicians money– and the biggest name rock has seen in twenty-five years– can buy.
Axl’s hired hands, the latest entrants in a revolving door of names facing the impossible mission of honorably reviving the GNR sound in the 21st century, respectfully did justice to their roles with faithful, colored renditions of the songs that made me believe in rock n’ roll when I was a kid. In what was perhaps a passing attempt lend legitimacy to the atmosphere, original member Izzy Stradlin made an appearance, joining drummer Frank Ferrer, bassist Tommy Stinson, Illusion-era keyboardist Dizzy Reed and guitarists Richard Fortus and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal on a handful of songs. Despite looking out of place and being out of tune onstage, Izzy was warmly welcomed as he contributed an unnecessary third rhythm guitar to a stage already brimming with six-string virtuosos.
A third guitarist stood apart from the others both visually and sonically, effortlessly tearing through every riff and solo like a man possessed; think Jimmy Page on ecstasy. Even after Rose introduced the bearded, sunglass-wearing phenomenon by name, dressed like a cross between Jim Morrison and Chris Robinson, I still couldn’t believe I was looking at Robin Finck. Having proficiently handled axe duties for several years with Nine Inch Nails, Finck looked back then to be something out of the circus of the apocalypse, but the man played like the devil himself. Exuding a confidence no amount of posturing can imitate, he brought a searing intensity to each Guns song with impassioned intricacy and soul. His beautifully shredding five-minute solo following Better was a standout performance in a night full of highlights.
Finck was great before his apparent bohemian awakening, but this was something else entirely. He was essentially running through a gallery of world-renowned portraits and landscapes, the best of their time and sacred to many, casting his own colors and impressions onto each canvas. Somehow, blasphemy be damned, he made improvements.
Bumblefoot’s solo instrumental take on Don’t Cry was gorgeous enough to substitute for the real thing. However, the pace of the evening stumbled during his failed, entirely- too-long attempt at turning Mr. Grinch into a sing-along during one of Axl’s many departures from the stage. How many verses are in that damn song, forty? Points for the green smoke effects, but it would’ve gone over better as just a ten-second teaser.
Visually, the years may have done strange things to Axl Rose, but his signature wailing has never been better. Polished, commanding and in high gear from the start, his delivery only grew stronger as the band moved through an impressively solid set. The infamous temper tantrums of old weren’t at all present; Rose actually laughed at himself for slipping and falling on his ass early on. This man knows he has something to prove, and for a reputation such as his, it’s remarkable to see him actually behaving himself. The guy actually comes off as likable.
Sebastian Bach returned to the stage to share vocal duties on a blistering rendition of My Michelle, an appropriately shiteating grin on his face as he traded lines with Rose; after his set earlier in the evening he was offered a major-label record deal. Watch out world, hair metal returns… or something.
The gritty jive of junkie-anthem Nightrain closed the first set, explosive and supercharged. Axl’s vocals were again undeniably perfect as he soared through the highest registers without so much as a strained note. The band exited the stage to thunderous applause, but for a production of this scale, nobody expected the night to end there.
Three of the four encore songs were new, presumably a part of Chinese Democracy (due to hit stores on March 6– allegedly- you know the drill). The first was the grinding, not-quite-epic title track, while IRS, another new overdrive-rocker, was more energetic and fun than the studio version circulating around the ‘net. It gives exactly the impression that Rose likely wants: it’s a logical step forward from Use Your Illusion, Rose’s narrative landscape and dramatic flair pushing the envelope just enough to avoid alienating fans. The magnetic pulse of Madagascar was irresistible, building steadily toward an epic climax with a Civil War vibe.
Red confetti filled the Gibson Ampitheater as the sticky-sweet “Paradise City” brought the show to a close, a wall of sparks showering down behind Axl while he wailed into the mic as if it were only yesterday that he ruled the rock world, white spandex shorts and all. There’s never been any shortness of theatrics associated with GNR, but these days costume changes and pyrotechnics replace concert no-shows and childish fits.
The band took a final bow to ear-splitting cheers, every one of them smiling genuinely. The only true, classic Guns N’ Roses was buried before the turn of the century. Nobody’s denying that. Short of a seemingly-impossible reunion of the original members, this is the very closest Rose can come to bringing justice to the name while keeping these songs, these living legends, alive. It’s close enough for me.
Having canceled what was intended to be the remaining four dates of the tour to put the final touches on Chinese Democracy, Axl’s apparent new urgency is a good sign. It would seem that this is the last stretch before we finally hear what’s been in the works for a decade, but don’t hold your breath– it’s been said before. The new tracks are a very promising taste of things to come, and should he finally deliver on this latest deadline, one thing is certain:
2007 will belong to Axl Rose.
1. Welcome To The Jungle
2. It’s So Easy
3. Mr. Brownstone
4. Live And Let Die
6. Robin Finck Solo
7. Sweet Child O’ Mine
8. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
9. You Could Be Mine
10. Dizzy Solo (“Angie”)
11. The Blues
13. Rocket Queen
14. Down On The Farm
15. Richard Fortus Solo
16. Out Ta Get Me
17. Jam / Axl Solo
18. November Rain
19. Think About You (w/ Izzy)
20. Bumblefoot Solo (Don’t Cry)
21. My Michelle (w/ Bach)
22. Patience (w/ Izzy)
23. Nightrain (w/ Izzy)
24. Chinese Democracy
27. Paradise City