Expect the worst; pray for something decent. That was my mindset going into the Chicago Guns N' Roses gig this past Monday night, the fourth date on their first tour since the early '90s. Early returns were not good. Axl Rose hadn't bothered to show up for the first stop in Vancouver, thereby inciting an angry mob to hurl heavy objects at the arena doors and forcing the police to don riot gear. Rose actually managed to take the stage at the following two dates, albeit a good hour or so late in some cases and to half-empty venues. Meanwhile, reviewers at the performances claimed that Rose could barely make it through three songs before tapping out his voice. There were even rumors circulating that Clear Channel (the tour's sponsor), unhappy with the sluggish sales, was going to call the whole tour offsending Rose and his merry band of freaks home for the holidays.
So it is with genuine shock that I can report that Rose not only took the stage promptly at 10 p.m., but that he and his band delivered an electrifying set that shouldat least temporarilysilence the skeptics. As was to be expected, the band emerged to the familiar opening progression of "Welcome to the Jungle." The lights flickered on to reveal an exceedingly odd assemblage of characters: Robin Finck, former guitarist for Nine Inch Nails, who sported a bizarre mullet (shaved to the skin on top and long at the back); Buckethead, an avant-garde guitar prodigy who proved to be equally adept at the nunchucks and the 80's dance-style known as The Robot; Love Spit Love guitarist Richard Fortus; former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson; keyboardists Dizzy Reed (and lone surviving member of the Use Your Illusion-era tour lineup) and Chris Pitman; and Primus drummer Brain. Perhaps giving us time to adjust to the glaring absence of the top-hatted one, Rose sauntered onstage after a minute or so wearing an oversized football jersey and sweatpants. His formerly wild mane now hung in tight braids that reached to the middle of his back. Although some have speculated that the new loose-fitting garb serves to mask his weight gain, he did not appear too heavy or out of shape, ably running up and down the two-tiered stage throughout the evening.
The set list strongly favored material from Appetite for Destruction, the band's landmark '87 debut, which was somewhat surprising if only because Rose's tone has changed drastically with age. He can still hit the high notes, but not with the same frequency. Thankfully, he didn't even bother trying to hit every octave (although if that's what he was attempting on the first several nights of the tour, that would've accounted for the blown vocals). Rose wisely chose to conserve his energy on this particular evening, letting the crowd do the work for him on the familiar numbers and reaching for the high notes only when necessary. This strategy worked perfectly and gave his band a chance to demonstrate their mastery of the old favorites. Buckethead was predictably brilliant, matching Slash's bluesy phrasings note for note; but it was Finck who exceeded expectations, skillfully fleshing out the rhythms as well as taking the leads on "Sweet Child of Mine" and "It's So Easy."
The real problem posed by the new Guns N' Roses has nothing to do with their execution, which is more than adequate; rather, it's the simple fact that they're playing a catalogue that another band (minus one) made famous. Hence, their renditions of the Guns' classics, no matter how good, can never truly be admired on their own terms, but instead beg the obvious question: how do they compare to the versions played by Slash, Izzy, and Duff? It's a question that will never truly go awayat least as long as they're playing anything the former members recorded. Consequently, the promise of new material loomed large over the proceedings, as it provided a much-needed opportunity to consider the new band apart from the Guns' legacy. Again, the group did not disappoint. "Madagascar," the first of the new ones, had an epic sweeprecalling both "Estranged" and "November Rain." It was an excellent vehicle for Rose's voice and he did not let it go to waste, proving that he still has one of the most distinctive and expressive voices in rock. The song's middle section featured a meandering Buckethead solo backed by an extended sound collage, which spliced together snippets of a Martin Luther King speech. The second new song playedentitled "The Blues,"while equally grand, isn't quite as morose as its name would suggest. It's a rather upbeat piano-based ballad with soloing duties shared by Buckethead and Finck. But perhaps the most progressive of the three songs unveiled was the title track of the unfinished new album, Chinese Democracy. In addition to being the only thoroughbred rock song of the bunch, it was also the first to incorporate the sound of Nine Inch Nails, a group for which Rose has repeatedly professed his admiration over the past several years. Although it didn't completely forsake Guns' classic rock roots, "Democracy" sported an unmistakably industrial veneer. Maybe Finck cribbed some ideas from Reznor before he defected to G N' R. In any event, all three songs sounded like potential singles. They managed to blend well with the old standards while still making appropriate concessions to contemporary trends.
I wish I could say that the Guns N' Roses fans were appreciative of the night's offerings, but many of them seemed too drunk to notice. No fewer than two brawls broke out in the audience prior to the headliner's set, requiring police intervention in each case. One rowdy individual in my section hurled a trashcan down the stairs, and several fans were seen staggering about the venue with dried vomit stains on their shirtfronts. As might be expected given the crowd's belligerent disposition, the opening bandsCKY and Mixmaster Mikewere met with mild distaste and outright hostility, respectively. The former at least deserved the chilly reception, as their tuneless take on metal left my friend and I wondering if they'd forgotten to add the S and U to the front end of their name. (The guitarist's between-song banter on the subject of his girlfriend's head-giving capabilities was even more appalling than the music.) Beastie Boys DJ, Mixmaster Mike, on the other hand, delivered a fantastic, adrenaline-fueled set, covering everything from Led Zeppelin to Rage Against the Machine. You'd have thought this testosterone-heavy audience would be thrilled by the trip through the rock pantheon, but instead they flashed their middle fingers and booed loudly.
Obnoxious fans aside, the concert proved that the new Guns N' Roses is capable of building on the band's proud tradition. This was most certainly not a nostalgia act. Even though they lack visual cohesion, this is a formidable band in its own rightwith three songs that attest to their considerable talents. According to Rose himself, we'll finally be able to hear those songs (along with the rest of the new material) in recorded form when the oft-delayed Chinese Democracy drops in '03, perhaps as early as March. Until then, consider these shows a sign of good things to come.