We were more than happy to have the image of a feisty, unreasonable, uncompromising Axl Rose frozen in time. But now that he’s thawed out and working through the freezer burn, what do we do with him?
With Slash long gone, the Guns N’ Roses frontman is alo-oo-one in the cold November Ra-eee-ain, trying to reclaim the mantle of rock god status—or at least some measure of relevance. Thus it is that Rose and his re-formed Guns N’ Roses lineup took the stage at NYC’s Hammerstein Ballroom for their first concert since 2002 - one of four “warm-up” shows leading up to a handful of European festival appearances.
The stakes were high. Monster bands have to struggle to maintain their place after the initial juggernaut of popularity has been decimated, and G’N'R is the rule, not the exception. And, of course, this is a G’N'R redux—other than Axl, the only other member from the band’s hey-day is keyboardist Dizzy Reed.
Still, the Hammerstein shows sold out in a matter of minutes, the audience comprised equally of aging headbangers, hocked-up high-school jocks, and the just plain curious. I fell into the last category, hoping for a spectacle of some sort—any sort. Of course, that didn’t stop the other two groups from opening their arms (and closing their fists) to include me in their impromptu mosh pit. Thanks for the black eye, fellas—a much better souvenir than the $30 retro tees being hocked at the merch table.
So, the fans are still kicking (or rather punching), but what about Axl? The challenge for any pre-grunge-era rocker is to avoid becoming a VH1 Classic novelty like Cinderella or Poison. The task for Axl is even greater since he basically disappeared for 15 years. As the wait for his yet-unfinished opus Chinese Democracy has dragged on, people have come to care less and less. Its enough to make you wonder, is there any hope for Axl Rose?
The man himself seemed ready to answer the question as he took to the Hammerstein stage. When those first few notes of “Welcome to the Jungle” echoed through the pitch-black grand ballroom, the audience mutated into packs of hissing snakes, howling werewolves, and shrieking banshees. And when the lights came up on Axl’s first bloodcurdling scream, he transported the crowd to another space and time—circa 1989.
Of course, not everything was the same. Axl’s appearance is remarkable; while he’s lost the heroin chic of yore, his much ballyhooed plastic surgery has left him looking as freaky as ever. And he’s held onto those weird dread locks. When his face contorts during the howls and flexes of his signature sway, he begins to look like a snake or some other woodland creature. It’s a little frightening.
To sate the audience’s Appetite for Destruction (get it? that was their album’s name), the band launched into “It’s So Easy” and many a head nearly combusted. To complete the trifecta, the band followed with “Mr. Brownstone.” The electric force triangulated by those three opening numbers would not be matched for the entire two-hour-plus show.
Axl allayed any fears that he’d shy away from old material to showcase tracks from the never-and-always imminently released album Chinese Democracy—China will probably have one by the time the album hits stores. Instead he played Appetite in its entirety, excepting only “Anything Goes” and “Rocket Queen”.
“My Michelle” was particularly rousing. For those of you who’ve forgotten the sweet sentimentality of the opening lyrics, the song begins with Axl shrieking:
“Ya’ daddy works in porno, now that mommy’s not around.
She used to love her heroin, but NOW SHE’S UNDERGROUND!”
(A wedding song for all you lovebirds?)
The onslaught of his rendering was amplified by a guest vocalist, ex-Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach, who handled co-lead vocal duties. Sebastian has never been as raw or as dangerous as Axl—maybe that’s why VH-1 chose him to anchor its new “Supergroup” reality TV program—but he can wail with the best of them. And on this track, these two ‘80s rock gods were spitting fire (or was that the pyrotechnics?).
Despite the fact that Axl would slug it out with Tommy Hilfiger (?!) in a posh NYC lounge (?!?!) within a week of this performance, his banter between songs indicated that he’s developed a mellow disposition. He talked about his new identity as a New Yorker, and thanked the crowd for embracing him as one of their own. Before “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” he spoke of how that was one place he had been one too many times before.
The only reference to his old bandmates came in the form of a subtle dig on former drummer Matt Sorum (now of Velvet Revolver). Axl discussed the discovery of his new (ex-Primus) drummer: “My good friend Sebastian asked me, ‘Where was this guy when you hired Matt?!’”) Oh, Axl. You’ve always held grudges with the best of them!
Though “November Rain” was a crowd favorite, Axl disappointed by not playing the piano solo I recalled hearing at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill in 1992. That solo astounded me and made me realize there was a bona fide classically-trained musician beneath that snake-oil-slick veneer and venom.
Predictably, Axl ended the affair with a rousing encore version of “Paradise City”, which shot the drained crowd with one last burst of adrenaline.
Some bands age gracefully and find a way to stay relevant even if their cache of cool runs dry—this summer, for instance, Pearl Jam and the Chili Peppers have both released albums proving themselves still worthy of notice. Had Axl not been so insistent that popular culture bow to him and not the other way around, he could have cut his hair, traded in his skin-tight leather pants for a pair of ripped jeans and, and toured with Anthony and Eddie. But, maybe its better that he didn’t. Axl himself looks a little worse for the wear, but his vocals can still electrify a crowd. It’s true, this isn’t your prison uncle’s Guns N’ Roses, and the music sounds a little dated, but it’s no circus sideshow either. You may not be Tommy Hilfiger, but that doesn’t mean Axl can’t still punch you square in the gut.