Police reported that Friday night's line to get into the first of four Guns n' Roses warm-up shows at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom spanned nearly five blocks. A late sound check prevented fans, decked out in vintage G n' R tees and swilling booze in brown paper bags (some of whom were later served public drinking tickets), from entering at the scheduled door time of 7:30 p.m. At around 8:15 p.m., the line began to inch forward, bringing fans waiting since 11 a.m. closer to the door. At neighboring bars, laid-back tailgaters were getting lit to classic Guns n' Roses singalongs. With anticipation mounting, devotees were hoping for at least one G n' R song out of Axl before he possibly walked offstage -- a "Welcome to the Jungle" opener? Others feared that the man himself wouldn't go on at all, and the collective buzz would only lead to rioting.
With the pile-up outdoors, Bullet for My Valentine received a bigger crowd than usual for an opening act. But another hour of the Hammerstein mix tape would pass, with the crowd shouting out the "Hey" in Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll, Part 2" on autopilot. Finally, at 11:02 p.m., the house lights went dark. "Are you ready? Let me hear you. Are you ready?" came an announcement from offstage. An ambient bass and string overture was drowned by the thunderous roar of the crowd, which grew even louder at the opening guitar riffs and pyrotechnic explosions of -- surprise -- "Welcome to the Jungle."
With Axl Rose's piercing howl, the crowd was assured at last the show was actually happening. Dressed in a black leather shirt and big, black, bug-eyed sunglasses, Axl, charismatic as ever, flew across the stage zigzagging between the seven members of the new Guns n' Roses lineup -- guitarists Robin Finck, Rich Fortus, Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, bassist Tommy Stinson, drummer Brain, keyboardist Chris Pittman and Dizzy Reed.
1987's Appetite for Destruction classics "It's So Easy" and "Mr. Brownstone" followed. Axl and Co. would go on to perform almost every song of the 1987 chart-topping release during the first two nights, but while the evening was basically dominated by old G n' R classics, Axl didn't hog the spotlight. Each of the three guitarists took the front of the stage for solos. Axl, however, was the rock icon, and he pulled some larger-than-life moves, stretching his arms out in time with the flames that shot from the stage during the chorus to "Live and Let Die."
While Friday night's crowd didn't start surfing until an hour in, during another Appetite for Destruction staple "Out Ta Get Me," Sunday night's audience -- not as crowded, with scalpers dumping last-minute tickets at thirty bucks a pop -- featured an instant mosh pit. Fans were surfing by the second number, "It's So Easy." "Damn!" Axl pointed out at Sunday's crowd. "We had people screamin' their heads off Friday, but you guys are kickin' the shit out of them! Happy Mother's Day, motherfuckers!"
Axl would eventually dedicate Sunday night's show to his mom and rekindled buddy, Sebastian Bach, whom he said he hadn't talked to in thirteen years. "I was trying to save my life, and [Bach] was trying to destroy his," Axl told the crowd. Both nights, Bach took the stage screaming "You're fucking crazy!" before the two buddies, arm in arm, launched into "My Michelle."
Low points included guitarists Robin Finck and Rich Fortus delivering an unexpected yet oddly powerful dueling guitar instrumental of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" -- which probably only Fred Durst enjoyed. Yes, Durst was among the VIP crowd, which also included Lenny Kravitz, comedian Jimmy Fallon, Goo Goo Dolls frontman Johnny Rzeznik, and actors Mickey Rourke and Shannon Elizabeth.
The most moving moment in the show was probably "November Rain," with Axl on the ivories, singing "Do you need some time on your own/ Do you need some time all alone/Everybody needs some time on their own" -- letting his lyrics speak for ten years recovering from Guns n' Roses' messy breakup. "I think we're doing pretty fuckin' all right, considering we have a guitarist that joined our band last week," quipped the frontman, referring to Bumblefoot during the song's signature intermission on Sunday night.
The weekend shows also included staples "Patience," "Sweet Child O' Mine," "You Could Be Mine," "Rocket Queen" and the encore, "Paradise City" -- with Axl coining New York his new "Paradise City." Each show ended with a shower of confetti -- a shower that, in the dim light, seemed to herald a real return for Guns n' Roses, or at least a sign that Axl is out to rock again. With Axl out of rock & roll rehab, he's no longer a notorious recluse -- just notorious.
As for one of rock's most famous unreleased albums, Chinese Democracy -- the band played a few already leaked tracks, including "Madagascar," "Better" and "IRS" -- Axl had just a few words.
"In regards to our new record . . . hold your breath for a little longer for that," he said. "I want to thank you for that."
No problem, Axl. Lighters up: "Everybody needs some time . . . on their own."