At this point most rock fans know whether they like Guns N’ Roses or not. For many it’s been a war of attrition. It was hard not to love their first few singles: “Paradise City,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Welcome to the Jungle.” In the late eighties they just sounded louder, tougher, and rawer than anything else on the radio. And even better, their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, turned out to be a perfect rock record in the tradition of the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols. It was that most rock ‘n’ roll of moments, a brilliant hit record that made everything else in the top forty sound dead.
Their next effort, G n’ R Lies had the memorable acoustic ballad “Patience,” but little else that could stand up to the best cuts on Appetite. Even with its EP length running time it felt a little bit padded, still plenty of raw energy and even a throwaway gem in a cover of Aerosmith’s “Mama Kin,” but overall not up to the standards of a band that considered themselves the new Rolling Stones. To make matters worse, front man Axl Rose drug the band into a silly controversy over a silly song called “One in a Million,” which contained derogatory lyrics about immigrants, gay people and African Americans. Axl defended his words, claiming they were expressing the opinions of a character in the song and not his personal views. I believed him, many people didn’t, many didn’t care either way but when the controversy subsided Guns N’ Roses had lost fans and a little bit of momentum.
Next came two years holed up in the studio, a new drummer, and the eventual departure of the Keith to Axl’s Mick, Rhythm Guitarist Izzy Stradlin. The result of all the time and money turned out to be two concurrently released but separately packaged albums, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. Both albums contained great songs:“Estranged,” “Don’t Damn Me,” and “November Rain,” but also weaker efforts like “So Fine,” which showed the influence of Axl Rose’s Elton John fixation—not a good thing for a hard rock band. Ultimately the band fizzled out for reasons that have never been fully revealed and aside from a few footnotes like a recent single for the End of Days soundtrack, that was all she wrote.
Bootlegs of Guns N’ Roses performing live have been circulating since before the release of Appetite for Destruction but this year’s Live Era ‘87 - ‘93 is the first official Guns N’ Roses live album. As the name implies it is a collection of live performances recorded between the bands early Sunset Strip era and their final days of bloated excess in 1993 before Nirvana made them old news. The liner notes say nothing about what was recorded when but I suspect that most of the recordings are from the second half of the six years.
The song selection is appropriately populist for a band that was nothing if not crowd-pleasing. Just about every cut on both of this album’s two disks is bound to be some one’s absolute favorite. All the hits are represented including the three original singles, “Patience,” “November Rain” and covers of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and Aerosmith’s “Mama Kin.” Continuing the populist theme all the songs are played as closely as possible to their original versions with a few Jethro Tull like indulgences such as the three minute piano intro to “November Rain” thrown in for good measure.
Aside from the obligatory crowd noise and the title there are few clues that Live Era is a live album. The sound quality is beautiful; better than on the original versions in a few cases. Especially on the songs from Use Your Illusion the smaller live arrangements are a nice alternative to the ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach on the album. Other extra features of the live performances are; Axl Rose’s often profane stage banter, and a self-serving and incongruous few moments of Axl admonishing a surging crowd to back up to avoid crushing each other (suspicious because Guns N’ Roses took a great deal of criticism for causing injuries when a riot broke out in the audience of a Guns N’ Roses/Metallica show after Guns N’ Roses refused to take the stage—setting the record straight or attempted revisionism? You make the call.)
The playing on Live Era is spot on with the exception of weak drumming on a few cuts—notably the first track on the album, “Nightrain,” which holds together only barely and is only as good as it is because of rock solid rhythm guitar by Izzy Stradlin and Slash. The newer songs which presumably feature ex-Cult drummer Matt Sorum are noticeably more solid than the older tracks which are most likely the work of original drummer Steven Adler. On the records I preferred Adler’s looser drumming but in a live context Sorum’s superior time keeping is invaluable.
Live Era isn’t quite a Guns N’ Roses greatest hits album even if it does have the proper track listing. The album versions of all the songs are still important to have for Slash’s studio perfect solos and Axl’s super-human screeching which is necessarily imperfect without the freedom to overdub. But Live Era is an ass-kicking album on its own terms. More like a seventies live album ala Frampton Comes Alive than a posthumous artifact like the Clash’s recently released From Here to Eternity. Live Era will satisfy both Guns N’ Roses completists and people who just miss a good, kick-ass hard rock record.