Arguably one of the most famous and charismatic frontmen of modern times, Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses has been a bit of a recluse as of late. It’s hard to say you can blame him, as his band left him member by member to pursue their own projects, and a long promised new album has yet to materialize, even with the stellar new lineup he’s assembled. In 2002, however, after playing several dates in Asia and making appearances at England’s Leeds festival and, most surprisingly, the MTV Video Music Awards, Axl proved to the world that GN’R was back with a vengeance… even if they aren’t quite what they used to be. In another surprising move, Axl took his new lineup out on the road, despite still not having a new album out and not quite filling the arenas that had been booked for the tour. Still, the faithful and the curious were treated to quite a show, thanks as much to his talented band of ringers as Axl himself.
Pennsylvania band cKy kicked the show off with an energetic half hour set that seemed to win over the sparse crowd who’d bothered to show up that early. cKy’s straightforward brand of heavy rock, despite being plagued with the typical opening act syndrome of questionable sound, provided the perfect warm-up for the hard-rocking show that would await them later in the evening. A much more unusual choice was fellow support act Mix Master Mike, a professional DJ best known for his work with the Beastie Boys and the Invizibl Skratch Piklz. Mike’s unique brand of high-speed turntablism quickly impressed the crowd, helped surely by the fact that music from Rage Against The Machine, Rush, Jane’s Addiction and Disturbed among others was thrown into the frenetic mix as well as the usual hip-hop. Mike’s non-stop half hour set was an unusual warm-up for a show that prided itself on the good old days (if 1988 could be considered such) of rock and roll, but it turned out to be quite an energy boost, and a refreshing one at that.
The moment of truth came shortly after 10 PM, as the lights went down and the curtain obscuring part of the tiered stage dropped to the screaming delight of the three-quarters full arena. Any doubts if this new band could pull it off were immediately alleviated when the opening chords of “Welcome To The Jungle” rang through the arena. Axl finally emerged in cue, clad in his now trademark long cornrowed braids and Ohio State football jersey (which would later change to the Browns, then the Indians.) It immediately became obvious that Axl’s voice had finally become accustomed to the rigors of playing live, as the shortness of breath and inability to hit high notes had completely disappeared. He sounded as good as ever, and moved about the stage as if he’d forgotten that the last 10 years had ever happened. Fortunately, so did the audience.
His A-list backup band was no slouch either, flawlessly recreating all of the GN’R classics, yet infusing their own original styles. The show stealer of the evening by far was eccentric guitarist Buckethead, one of the few band members to get his very own mid-show interlude (which included a medley of Star Wars themes), and inspired a few audience members to wear KFC buckets of their own. Guitarist Robin Finck (formerly of nine inch nails) also got his own moment in the spot light, playing a beautiful interlude that led delightfully into the opening chords of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, arguably the best-received number of the evening. Great things could be said of the rest of the band as well. Ex-Primus drummer “Brain” Mantia and ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson provided a tight rhythm section, providing a perfect backup to Buckethead, Finck and fellow guitarist Richard Fortus. Though one could easily question the need for two keyboardists or three guitarists, no one could argue with the fact that these guys sounded great.
The two-hour set spanned hit the high points of GN’R’s three proper albums, with much of the material coming off of their immortal breakthrough “Appetite For Destruction”. The band played most of their singles (“Don’t Cry” and “Estranged” being the only omissions), and album track favorites such as “It’s So Easy” and ”Mr. Brownstone”. The band daringly showcased quite a bit of new material as well, playing several songs from the as-yet unreleased “Chinese Democracy”. The highlight of these was the epic ballad “Madagascar”, which, should it ever be released. will be one hell of a comeback hit of GN’R. Even with the inclusion of new material, the crowd ate up all of it, singing along with every word of the old stuff, lighters aloft, hands in the air, voices at full scream.
Debates continue to rage back and forth over whether this new lineup should even call themselves Guns N’ Roses. Even those who showed up to see the new show admittedly missed Slash, Izzy and Duff. Regardless, this was Axl’s night, and he carried it majestically, like the rock star we’d all almost forgotten he was. Even with a whole new lineup, it’s safe to say that Guns N’ Roses is back with a vengeance, and as good as they ever were. Bravo.