It's hard to walk into a Guns N' Roses concert these days without feeling a bit of trepidation. This is not exactly a band that's gone out of their way to be fan-friendly these past two decades. In that time, Axl Rose parted ways with the entire original line-up, released only a single album of new material and routinely started concerts ludicrously late, sometimes not taking the stage until midnight and playing until 3:00 a.m. In the handful of interviews he's granted recently, he pins the blame for these things almost entirely on other people. With all that in mind, I decided to keep my expectations low for the opening night of the group's 2012 tour.
Kudos to whoever decided to not even open the doors to the Roseland Ballroom until 9:00 p.m., and not having opening band Manitoba (featuring Dictators frontman Handsome Dick Manitoba) take the stage until 10:20. When the lights turned off at 11:30 and the opening notes of "Welcome To The Jungle" began ringing out across the venue, it actually seemed somewhat early. Even after all these years, it's still a little weird to see a bunch of other guys playing this song - but once Axl opens his mouth and screams "Welcome to the jungle, we got fun and games!" all that is forgotten. He sounded absolutely amazing. Who would have guessed that at age 50 his wild banshee wail would sound largely undiminished?
He followed it up with two more songs from Appetite For Destruction, "It's So Easy" and "Mr. Brownstone." If you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine you were seeing Guns N' Roses on the Sunset Strip in 1987. Axl sounded that good. Then you open your eyes, and see a 50-year-old Axl in a black cowboy hat and sunglasses singing alongside some guy named Bumblefoot and you're brought right back to reality. For this brief club tour, the arena-sized stage has been drastically scaled down and the pyro completely removed. The video screen remained, often showing incongruous images like dolphins and ballerinas.
It couldn't be easy being in this band. Every single member must be painfully aware that the vast majority of the audience wish that other people were playing their instruments. That said, they do an incredible job - even if takes three guitarists to do what Slash and Izzy used to do. Who could have ever imagined 20 years ago that Tommy Stinson of the Replacements would wind up in Guns N' Roses? But there is he thumping away on "Rocket Queen," looking like he's having a blast. Weird as it may seem, some of these guys have been in the band far longer than the original line-up. That makes it pretty had to call them a glorified cover band.
The setlist was pretty consistent with what Axl's been doing for the past decade: lots of Appetite For Destruction, lots of covers and a handful of cuts from Chinese Democracy. For years he steered largely clear of the Use Your Illusion albums with the exception of "November Rain" and "You Could Be Mine." But in the past year he's added "Civil War," "Don't Cry" and even "Estranged" into the regular mix. Each one is an epic, and in many ways the complex songs sound better with this expanded line-up of the band than some of the older material. To make room in the show for them, Axl dropped some cuts from Chinese Democracy. Nobody seemed to mind, though it must be said that "Better" and "Madagascar" are great songs that fit in nicely with the rest of the show.
Every forty minutes or so, Axl ran off the stage and let the band play an instrumental. They did bits of "Waiting On A Friend," "Another Brick In The Wall: Part 2," the DJ Ashba original "Ballad of Death" and even the theme song to the Pink Panther. Each time it robbed the show of momentum, and posed an obvious question: what the hell is Axl doing back there besides putting on a new cowboy hat? Breathing into an oxygen mask? Getting shot up with cortisone? Sticking pins into a Slash voodoo doll? Like most things in the world of Axl Rose, there are more questions than answers.
Towards the end of the night, Axl's longtime personal assistant Beta Lebeis grabbed the mic and had the audience sing Axl "Happy Birthday." (He turned 50 on February 6th.) "I've been in this band now for 25 years," Axl said afterwards. "That's half my life - definitely the better half." As the clock neared 2:00 a.m. and my knees began to throb because I'd been standing in the exact same spot since 9:30 p.m., Axl left the stage again and let Tommy Stinson sing his original tune "Motivation." Some people headed toward the exits and others were anxiously looking at their watches, but those who stayed were rewarded when the roadies handed out acoustic guitars and the group launched into "Patience." In many ways, it's become the theme song for long-suffering Guns N' Roses fans.
The night ended at 2:15 a.m. with the inevitable "Paradise City," complete with a cannon firing red confetti all over the audience. The band all took a bow and Axl attempted to say something into the mic, but it was turned off. He just shrugged his shoulders and walked off. Now, this isn't the Guns N' Roses line-up that everybody wants to see tour. Chinese Democracy didn't live up to expectations and it's maddening that Axl can't take the stage at a reasonable time - but the show still wildly exceeded my expectations. Say what you will about Axl, when he's onstage he sings his ass off and gives it his all.
As the crowd inched towards the exit, "My Way" blasted from the P.A. I'm not sure if this was an Axl selection, but it made perfect sense. He's always been a man that has done things his way, regardless of what anyone else thinks. In two months he's getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Regardless of what happens at the ceremony regarding a reunion, it'll certainly all go down precisely his way. That's the only way he's ever operated.