Let's get it all out in the open.
Axl Rose, we've been told, is a head case who ran off Slash and Izzy and the rest of his former bandmates with his increasingly erratic and dictatorial behavior. The delays behind "Guns N' Roses" latest album, Chinese Democracy, became the music industry's longest running joke before it was finally released in 2008, some 14 years after initial work on the album began.
Oh, and he's fat.
Not to dredge up old, tired material, but it's impossible to review GnR's first Houston show since 1992 without viewing it in the context of the past 20 years. It may not matter if Axl is a whack job, or if his retinue of support players are mostly hired guns (heh) brought on board to staff this latest incarnation of the band. What matters is if Rose and company can still deliver the goods. After a 3+ hour set on Friday night at the Toyota Center, Rocks Off thinks the answer would have to be: pretty much, yeah.
Our first (and last) experience seeing GnR live was in 1991 at the Starplex in Dallas, the first post-St. Louis riot show, when it seemed eminently plausible there might be a repeat of the previous date's mayhem. There was a two-hour gap between openers Skid Row and the band's appearance, leading to much consternation (a situation not helped by the fact we were in Dallas, outdoors, in July).
By comparison, the Gunners took the stage Friday at 10:30, a modest 90 minutes after the end of opener Buckcherry's set. Worse, to some, they opened with the title cut off Chinese Democracy, which doesn't seem like the best way to win the crowd back, but then public relations have never been Axl's specialty.
"Democracy" was followed by "Welcome to the Jungle," and they were off. Axl and crew didn't disappoint those anticipating a trip down memory lane, offering up "Mr. Brownstone," "Rocket Queen," and of course, "Sweet Child O' Mine" from Appetite. There were also a few choice cuts from the Use Your Illusion albums, including one of our person favorites, "Estranged."
We admit, we were expecting a train wreck, and ended up pleasantly surprised. The band, consisting of *three* guitarists, ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, drummer Frank Ferrer, and longtime Guns keyboardist Dizzy Reed, were on the money most of the night. And if Axl's voice is no longer the keeing wail we remember from the Appetite for Destruction/Use Your Illusion days, it was still powerful enough to hit most of the notes.
As far as we could tell, that is. The vocals at Toyota Center were terribly muddy from where Rocks Off was sitting, with large sections dropping out entirely.
The set relied heavily on Appetite — much to the delight of those attending — and Democracy — much to the delight of those needing a bathroom break. We kid, mostly. The new stuff sounded fine, it was just apparent few in the audience were familiar with songs like "Better" and even their quote-unquote singles like "Shackler's Revenge."
For all you read about the man, we were expecting some drama Friday night, but Axl seemed loose and at ease on stage. The only odd thing we noticed was how he kept ducking into an tent near the back of the stage to change hats and/or jackets every couple songs. Frankly, we'll take Axl going all Stevie Nicks over him storming off after three songs.
Though it was perhaps telling that he and Dizzy Reed, the only other holdover from the Use Your Illusion days, never got closer than 50 feet to each other all night.
The band's guitar attack was as potent as ever, which tends to happen when you replace two guitarists with three. Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, DJ Ashba. and Richard Fortus seemed well up to the task of taking over for Slash and Izzy Stradlin, and they even managed to get a guy with a hat (Ashba).
If we had any complaint (aside from starting at 10:30), it'd be the bloated set. This could easily be a two-hour show if every band member wasn't given a solo showcase (Bumblefoot played the "Pink Panther" theme, Fortus the theme from "James Bond") and the number of instrumental interludes were cut down. We'll allow Stinson's, because the guys was a founding member of the fucking Replacements.
But in an era of noise ordinance-abbreviated sets and multimedia onstage experiences — GnR's visual accompaniments were, by turns, hilariously cheesy (dancing girls in lingerie) or completely incomprehensible — going onstage late and playing until 1:30 a.m. is pretty rock and roll.
And the dude ain't fat, as if that would matter. He's obviously put on a few pounds since the early 90s (like you haven't), but that cocaine/Marlboro Red diet isn't really a good longterm wieght loss option.
Personal Bias: "Nightrain" was one of our "motivational" songs before going out during our freshman year of college. Good times.
The Crowd: Lots of women who were big GnR fans back in the day, accompanied by the somewhat baffled husbands they married afterwards.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Civil War!"
Random Notebook Dump: "To the guy who keeps yelling 'Civil War:' please shut the fuck up."
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Chinese Democracy Welcome to the Jungle It's So Easy Mr. Brownstone Sorry Better Estranged Rocket Queen James Bond Theme (Richard Fortus solo) Live And Let Die This I Love Riff Raff (AC/DC cover) My Generation (Who cover/Tommy Stinson solo) Baba O'Riley (Dizzy Reed solo) Street of Dreams You Could Be Mine (DJ Ashba solo) Sweet Child O' Mine Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 1 (instrumental interlude) November Rain Pink Panther Theme (Bumblefoot solo) Don't Cry Whole Lotta Rosie (AC/DC cover) Knockin' On Heaven's Door Nightrain
Madagascar Out Ta Get Me Patience Shackler's Revenge Paradise City