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BETTER LATE THAN NEVER (AND STILL QUITE GOOD)

Guns N' Roses/Izod Center, East Rutherford, N.J./Nov. 17, 2011

Axl Rose.jpg

On a crisp fall evening, after some November rain earlier in the afternoon, Axl Rose brought his latest version of Guns N’ Roses into the swamps of New Jersey to accomplish a few things.

First, he wanted to prove that even 20 years after the original band’s reign of terror that he’s still worthy of a mention in the legacy of rock’s great frontmen. Second, he wanted the fans to know that his “hired Guns” are the real deal and just as capable as the ex-Gunners who came before them. And third, he wanted to put on a big-time arena rock show to delight the fans and enlighten the skeptics who believe the best days are long gone.

The legend of the Guns N’ Roses live experience has been filled with triumph and stubborn behavior in equal dosages. This night’s crowd was treated to the most legendary part right from the start: the waiting. Some played it smart and lingered at local bars and hotels banking on the cursory knowledge that the show wouldn’t start on time. Others milled around the concourse tipping $8 beers with willful abandon and trying to relive their glory days all the while chanting for Axl and Guns N’ Roses. And some others figured that this is a good time to catch some shut-eye and reserve that energy for the show.

But once the house lights went down at just before 11 p.m., it was game on.

The eight-piece band — Rose, plus DJ Ashba, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thai and Richard Fortus on guitars, Frank Ferrer on drums, Chris Pittman and Dizzy Reed on keyboards and Tommy Stinson on bass — launched into the title track from 2008’s Chinese Democracy with a loud industrial blitz. The sheer volume of the collective band left Rose’s vocals muddy and indistinguishable. But they recovered quickly with the true show opener, “Welcome to the Jungle,” played with less emphasis of noisy effects and more on the song’s true adrenalized nature.

The celebration of all things Appetite for Destruction didn’t end there, as the band followed that up with a one-two punch of “It’s So Easy” and “Mr. Brownstone.” Both numbers allowed the band to flex some muscle as well as allow Stinson to shine on the punkier bass lines of ‘It’s So Easy,” while Bumblefoot, Ashba and Fortus shared lead time and riffs throughout “Brownstone.”

The early highlight came during the near nine-minute tour de force “Estranged.” The full band had an equal hand in making the epic ballad of self awareness into a live masterpiece. However, an extra level of praise goes to Rose for a pitch-perfect rendition that he performed as if it his life depended on it. The members of the audience were in the palm of his hand as they sat in awe of the whole performance until the very last note of the song was belted at full force.

As for the other newer tracks from Chinese Democracy that were sprinkled throughout the night, some were embraced with enthusiastic response like the hard rocking “Better” and the piano driven “Street of Dreams.” Others, such as the empty-sounding “Sorry” and the complicated industrial rockers “Sheckler’s Revenge” and “Madagascar,” didn’t hold the crowd’s attention like the classics did.

Another big stumbling point was the amount of solo time the individual band members got. Each guitar player got roughly five minutes each to noodle around over the course of the three-hour show. Stinson used his solo time to trot out a spiky version of The Who‘s “My Generation” that was followed by Reed’s solo stab at “Baba O’Riley.” It was a nice gesture to let the guys share the spotlight, but it was ultimately too time consuming for the restless crowd.

The covers didn’t end there: The band also turned in a mixed bag of its own takes on outside material. A pair of AC/DC numbers, “Riff Raff” and “Whole Lotta Rosie,” were spot-on and added to the energy of the set. On the other side of the coin, the band’s version of Bob Dylan‘s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” might have been a novel choice 20 years ago, but GNR’s reading has long overstayed its time. A loud and fast version of Wings’ “Live and Let Die” woke the crowd out of a bit of a lull early in the set, but it also suffered from an overenthusiastic pyro display that blasted at every open spot in the song.

The main set’s back stretch was highlighted by the frenzied punch of two classics, “You Could Be Mine” and “Nightrain.” Both were 100-percent perfect performances that once again showed off the vocal range that Rose still has in spades. The two songs had some flashy guitar weaving from the guitar trio, and “Nightrain” featured some playful stage antics between Rose and Stinson.

At encore time, the crowd was treated to a mostly subdued version of the ballad “Patience,” which saw guitarist Ashba trying all his Slash guitar solo poses while Rose ran the length of the stage numerous time as the song reached its crescendo.

“Paradise City” closed things out in bombastic fashion. Even in their tired masses (at nearly 2 a.m.), the crowd sang and clapped along with Rose as he belted out the beginning chorus before the pyro, whistles and strong guitar riffs took over. This version of Guns N’ Roses proved that they can definitely pull off an energetic set, and Rose himself proved that he still has the vocal chops to turn in a three-hour set and sound strong start to finish.

Only time will tell if they have the work ethic to capitalize on it.

— By Mike Madden