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Axl Ignites Rio Festival

Guns n’ Roses triumphs, Britney stumbles at seven-day Rock in Rio Festival

Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses performs in Wembley Stadium, London on April 20th, 1992.

Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses performs in Wembley Stadium, London on April 20th, 1992.

Michael Putland/Getty

BY THE END OF ROCK IN Rio III, which wrapped up on January 21st, there had been no deaths, no births, more than 1.2 million spectators and more than 150 performances – including sets by Sting, R.E.M., Beck, Neil Young, ‘N Sync, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Oasis. Memorable festival moments abounded: Britney Spears was booed, Papa Roach frontman Coby Dick puked onstage, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl received a birthday cake from girlfriend Melissa Auf Der Maur, and Axl Rose rewarded the faithful and won over the skeptics with an incendiary Guns n’ Roses set.

Oh, and you could buy a beer outside festival grounds for fifty cents.

Calls to cede control of the next Woodstock to the Brazilian embassy are certainly understandable. In recent years, a cloud has hung over the entire concept of the massive outdoor music festival. Final-night rioting and sexual assaults marred Woodstock ’99, and nine fans were crushed to death during a Pearl Jam set at the Roskilde festival last summer in Denmark.

In that light, Rock in Rio –— the brainchild of Brazilian promoter Roberto Medina, who staged the first Rock in Rio in 1985 – was a resounding success. The festival, which raised approximately $1.5 million for educational charities, took place at the height of summer in Rio de Janeiro, with daily temperatures reaching 104 degrees. Though the site’s capacity was 350,000, daily ticket sales were capped at 250,000 to prevent overcrowding. Free bottled water was handed out near the stage, and concessions in general were much more affordable than at U.S. events.

Starship jokes be damned, Medina dubbed the concert site Rock City. It resembled a colony set up to attract UFOs. The bulk of the audience assembled in a central field, surrounded by strange shelters: chat-room tepees, concession stands that looked like giant pacifiers, mothership-shaped side stages, an entryway that led through an enormous globe. The main stage –— 131 feet high, 288 feet wide, built with 200 tons of steel –— might have been modeled after a spiny mollusk or a female-pleasuring device.

Despite typical festival unpleasantness —– overflowing Porta Potties, mud- and trash-covered lawns —– Rock in Rio’s vibe remained positive. Fans, mostly Brazilian teens, got their hair spray-painted, waved inflatable sharks and sported FUCK ME I’M FAMOUS T-shirts. The meathead contingent did not show up as at Woodstock, and kids moved easily from stage to stage, catching as many as twenty bands a day.

Backstage, and at the pool and bar of the swank Intercontinental Hotel, artists drank, soaked up the sun and expressed a spirit of camaraderie. “The Brazilian audience is the best in the world,” gushed Dave Matthews as he nodded along to Neil Young tearing up “Rockin’ in the Free World.” “My mind is blown.”

For fans and artists, the festival’s high point was getting to see a fired-up Axl Rose and his retooled Guns n’ Roses play their second live gig ever. Backstage, members of Papa Roach, Foo Fighters and Oasis gathered to watch as Rose and his new band tore through most of Appetite for Destruction, along with a handful of new tracks. The set culminated with a samba band marching into the audience and a teased-out rendition of –— what else, in Rio? –— “Paradise City.”

“It’s actually fucking genius,” raved Noel Gallagher. “It’s the most disgusting, brilliant, outrageous thing I’ve seen in my life.”

THE FIRST ROCK IN RIO WAS held on the same site, featuring headliners Queen, Ozzy Osbourne and the Scorpions. Rock in Rio II, held in 1991 at Rio’s Maracanã Stadium, lasted nine days and featured the original Guns n’ Roses, George Michael, New Kids on the Block, Prince and a-ha. Most people agreed that the stadium was not comfortable enough for such an endurance fest, so when Medina began planning the third installment of Rock in Rio, he decided to build a venue from the ground up. To pay the bill, he attracted $30 million worth of sponsorship; America Online kicked in the most, with $20 million. Five percent of the net profit from ticket sales, sponsorship and licensing was set aside to fund education programs for Brazilian kids.

Aside from construction of the site —– located on swampland and powered entirely by generators –— the main difficulty and expense came in booking such a marquee lineup. Though specific numbers were unavailable, insiders said bands were paid much more than their average fees, drawing out artists like Beck, who is not currently on tour. The exotic locale was also a pull. And then there was the massive audience. “I would tell people, ‘Put Woodstock, Big Day Out and Glastonbury together, and that’s the exposure you’ll get from this,’ ” says Phil Rodriguez, the Miami promoter who booked Rock in Rio’s main-stage acts.

Sting headlined the opening night, following Gilberto Gil, James Taylor and Brazilian pop star Daniela Mercury, whose show could be described in two words: costumes and percussion. (“For fuck’s sake!” Sting cried as the walls of his backstage dressing room literally vibrated during her set.)

The following night, Grohl celebrated his thirty-third birthday by playing between R.E.M. and Beck. “Best birthday I ever had,” noted a shirtless Grohl in his dressing room, post-show, as he shared a chair with Auf Der Maur. “My last birthday, they had a stripper come onstage. This year, it was my girlfriend. Twice as nice —– ’cause I know I can get some later!” Ignoring the look shot his way by Auf Der Maur, Grohl continued, “The only other time I played a show on my birthday, I was sixteen. It was our first time playing in D.C., and I was so nervous I spent the hour before the show with terrible diarrhea. And my mom was at the club. So there ya go.”

Unfortunately for Papa Roach’s Coby Dick, who performed the next night, his Rock in Rio experience was closer in spirit to Grohl’s first birthday gig. The singer –— spotted that afternoon in the Intercontinental Hotel bar, drinking vodka and eating McDonald’s —– began swooning under the Rio sun toward the end of the band’s set. Ducking to the side of the stage, he tried to vomit and failed. Then he stepped back out front and threw up. Still, he managed to finish the set with “Last Resort.” “When I saw him gagging, I knew something was wrong,” said bassist Dave Buckner after the show, as a half-undressed Dick lay face-down on the dressing room floor, occasionally spitting up in a nearby trash can.

Later that night, after a tight set by Oasis (the Gallaghers dedicated their closer, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” to “Mr. Rose”), the Guns n’ Roses camp began clearing the entire backstage area, even forcing reps from the band’s own record label to leave. “Is this Guns n’ Roses or the Village People?” muttered Buckner as the band’s new lineup entered: ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson in tartan shorts and a CLOCKWORK ORANGE cap, ex-Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck with his Twiggy Ramirez version of a mullet, keyboardist Dizzy Reed in a leather cap, guitarist Buckethead sporting his trademark KFC bucket and blank-faced Michael Myers mask.

Moments after the sound of an incoming helicopter announced his arrival, Rose strode backstage in striped sweat pants and an unbuttoned shirt, belying rumors of a late-period-Elvis bloat. The G n’ R pre-show began with a cartoon image of Rose on the Jumbotron —– sitting on a bedpan and wiping himself with a page from Rolling Drone magazine. Next, words flashed on the screen: “I believe in anger. I believe in pain. I believe in cruelty.”

“I believe in buckets!” shouted Noel Gallagher, referring to the guitarist.

The band finally took the stage at around 2 A.M., with pyrotechnics and the long-missed opening riffs of “Welcome to the Jungle.” Temperamentally, Rose did not disappoint. After the first song, he had security remove a kid in the front holding up a FUCK GUNS N’ ROSES T-shirt. (Hey, the First Amendment only applies on U.S. soil.) Later, he listed the names of Brazilian kids who had posted spurious G n’ R rumors in chat rooms and also threw some darts at his former band mates. “I know that many of you are disappointed that some of the people you came to know and love could not be here today,” Rose told the audience, speaking slowly as a translator communicated his message. “Regardless of what you may have heard, people were working very hard —– meaning my former friends —– to do everything they could so that I could not be here today. I say, fuck that! I am as hurt and disappointed as you that, unlike Oasis, we could not find a way to get along.”

As much as G n’ R’s performance was about spectacle, it also proved to be one of the most engaging musical moments of Rock in Rio. Highlights were the kicking “Chinese Democracy” and “Madagascar,” a ballad (not played at the Vegas show) that blended organ, a looped drum-machine backbeat and spoken-word samples before working itself up to Rock in Rio fest a “November Rain” crescendo. Rose’s vocals remain strong, and he commanded the entire stage, even occasionally running into the audience. The new band had enough chops and freak-show appeal to make the crowd forget about the beloved original model. Buckethead provided the most “Slash who?” moments, as he busted out a pair of nunchucks, made his eyes glow and soloed mercilessly.

The only arrival that made as much of an impact as Buckethead –— well, sure, and Rose —– was Spears. Her bodyguards were omnipresent at the Intercontinental, even jumping into the pool with her when she went for a swim. Unfortunately, her show, on a teen night that also featured ‘N Sync, Aaron Carter and Brazilian sibling act Sandy and Junior, didn’t go over well with the Brazilian crowd. While Spears performed “Lucky,” images of the American flag appeared on the Jumbotrons. The audience booed, flipped Spears off and finally began clapping and shouting “Bra-zil!” like a soccer chant, making the rest of the song completely inaudible.

HEADLINERS PROVIDED THE HIGHLIGHTS of the festival’s final weekend: Neil Young and Crazy Horse delivered snapped-string, feedback-drenched renditions of classics such as “Like a Hurricane,” while Sheryl Crow and Matthews watched from the side of the stage; the Red Hot Chili Peppers rounded out the closing night with crowd-pleasers such as “Give It Away” and “Suck My Kiss.”

Though the festival ran smoothly, there were some rumblings of discontent. Most Brazilian bands were relegated to a side stage, usually in the daytime. “The problem is a band like Papa Roach,” said Braulio Neto, who works at the Brazilian indie label UM. “Who is Papa Roach? The Brazilian bands see a band who sold 10,000 records here playing at night on the main stage, while a Brazilian group that sells 1 million plays during the day. It’s about respect.”

Indeed, one of the most exciting performances at the festival was the Brazilian act Afro Reggae, who incorporate rapping, singing, traditional Brazilian dancing, even some theater, all to a delirious effect. It’s hard to argue that these guys should have been given a short set on a side stage while bands like Silverchair nabbed choice spots.

Medina, who holds the lease on the Rock City site for the next five years, plans to mount another fest in two years and to use the site for other shows as well.

“When I was watching Beck,” said Grohl, “I actually got choked up. It’s a rock & roll fantasy to go from being a drummer to playing something like this. I was so horrified for three months before the show. Absolutely, dude! It’s a quarter of a million people. But once I walked onstage, I thought, ‘I could never get scared again.'”

“You know what’s so funny?” added Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. “I was watching Dave strutting back and forth onstage, and I thought, ‘Watching those videos of Queen from the first Rock in Rio must have really rubbed off.'”

“I tell ya,” Grohl said, chuckling, “you wanna connect with 300,000 people? You watch the pope or Freddie Mercury. Can’t go wrong.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Rock in Rio festival

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