Sophomore year of high school my buddies and I somehow landed a stack of copies of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, which is sort of the Bible for Christian Scientists. We traded them in for store credit at Borders and bought CDs. This is relevant because that's when I got Live Era '87-'93, theGuns N' Rosesdouble live album that has pretty much all the band's good songs on it, and it's weird to think that Mary Baker Eddy got me into GNR.
More important: it was 1999, six whole years past the official end of the prime era, when I fell for Axl Rose. Three years later, Axl – in the cornrows and the Raiders jersey and the extra weight – would yank his zombie version of Guns N' Roses onto the VMAs stage, to the horror of millions. I never really knew Axl when he was still rocking star-spangled banner biker shorts, though. That pudgy Axl's always felt much more familiar.
Which brings us to last night, at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and the latest stop in Guns N' Roses current tour. It's the first time Axl's brought his outfit of mercenary virtuoso-guitar-shredders-with-dumb-names to the U.S. in five years, and the storyline so far is that dude actually seems to have his shit together. The shows are still starting crazy late for an arena-rock act (around 11 p.m. seems the norm), but they do start, and then they go on for two-and-a-half hours.
Axl, with an array of fedoras and chains layered atop an ill-advised handlebar moustache, is now looking weirder than ever. (Last night, when he ran over to the riser on my side of the stage, he was only be about 10 feet away. Looking right into his grizzled face, it almost felt a little too intimate). His dance moves have also undergone a transformation. The snake-sway is gone, replaced by an array of toe-points and step-overs and feet shuffles of varying efficacy. To his great credit, at 49, he does sprint back and forth across the stage, to the point where at first you worry he's going to hurt himself. Most surprisingly: the voice, more or less, is still there.
And the structure of the set list seems geared specifically toward making sure Axl doesn't stress it out. After the first stretch, which mostly alternates between Appetite For Destruction and Chinese Democracy tracks, there are large chunks of the show when Axl can disappear altogether. Bassist Tommy Stinson ("the replacement from the Replacements!" - Axl) gets to sing lead on a cover of "My Generation." All three guitarists get extended solo sessions. Bumblefoot, for some reason, builds his around the Pink Panther theme. (This, to the great enjoyment of the guy in front of me making eye contact with everyone in our section and yelling "Bumble fucking Foot! That's Bumble fucking Foot!")
There are other accoutrements of distraction: plumes of fireworks and flames shoot out on a regular basis, along with terrifying, heart-palpitating sonic booms. And in the walkway between the seats and the general admission area, a steady selection of a more mature groupie pool streams by.
On stage, everyone runs around like maniacs, pulling out all the cock-rock guitar moves in the book, mugging like crazy. Between the pyro, the intense volume, and the at-times inexplicable big-screen material (ballerinas, rap video girls, etc.), it can feel rote and hollow, almost like you're in a giant room by yourself being screamed at. At certain stretches, though, once the they get going – like the run from "Sweet Child O' Mine" to "November Rain" (with a presumably contractually-obligated can of Monster energy drink propped on his piano) to "Don't Cry" and "Knocking On Heaven's Door" -- Rose and the band are really cooking. (Watch last night's performance of "Welcome to the Jungle" below.) It's not 1991; the arena's seventy percent full, and it never reaches that pitch fever GNR could probably muster ten seconds into "Welcome to the Jungle" back in the day. But for pudgy, weird-looking Axl, it's not bad at all.
"Welcome to the Jungle"
"It's So Easy"
"Riff Raff" (AC/DC cover)
Richard Fortus Guitar Solo (James Bond theme)
"Live and Let Die" (Paul McCartney and Wings cover)
"This I Love"
"My Generation" (The Who cover) (Tommy Stinson on lead vocals)
Dizzy Reed Piano Solo ("Baba O' Riley")
"Street Of Dreams"
"You Could Be Mine"
"DJ Ashba Guitar Solo" (The Ballad of Death)
"Sweet Child O' Mine"
Instrumental Jam ("Another Brick In the Wall Part Two")
Axl Rose Piano Solo
Bumblefoot Guitar Solo (Pink Panther theme)
"Whole Lotta Rosie" (AC/DC cover)
"Knockin' On Heaven's Door" (Bob Dylan cover)