There are certain invitations you can’t turn down, and a pair of free tickets to witness Guns N Roses live at a smaller theater is high on the list. Even on a Sunday night. Not to say my going wasn’t full of trepidation. First off, the onstage time for Guns was “scheduled” to be 11pm. I say scheduled because, as we all know, “start time” don’t mean shit to Axl. Many speculate it’s the reason the original line up split is that Slash, Duff, Izzy and Adler (later Matt) wanted to play a show that was supposed to start at 9pm. While Axl leaned more toward midnight. The other concern was the lineup. Like most people, I want to see a band with it’s original line up intact. Especially since I missed them the first time around. My final concern was having to go alone. Several people accepted and then turned down my invitation to join in the rock. “It’s just too damn late” or “They won’t go on till four am” were among the popular excuses. With all that on my mind I tucked my wife and kids into bed, put on my black jeans and leather jacket and ventured out at 9:45 pm on a Sunday night to see the GNR at The Wiltern Theatre, a beautiful old place more comfortable with Elvis Costello or theatrical production about Elvis Presley than the high octane rock and roll of GnR.
I arrived at the start of opening act Goldsboro’s set of tight, heavy metal riff (ala Motorhead) which was unfortunately light on stage personality or memorable songs. Then I waited. And I waited. But not as long as I expected. Axl and company hit the stage a mere 45 minutes later with a whole lot of power, opening with the title track to “Chinese Democracy,” then blasting into “Welcome To The Jungle.” It was on! Axl looking mean, lean and sounding awesome screamed at the audience. “You know where you are? You know where you are?” If you closed your eyes for a second you would have sworn the answer was at some grimy club on the Sunset Strip in 1988. And that was exactly where we all wanted to be. If not there then right here recapturing the way those times made us feel. The band was nothing short of explosive as they ripped through several recognizable Guns tracks including “I used To Love Her”, “Mr. Brownstone” and their bombastic cover of “Live and Let Die.” mixed with a whole lot of not so familiar cuts from “Chinese Democracy.”
But, Axl Rose had something to prove. He wanted to convince you, me, the concert going public and maybe the world that his current band line up is stronger, faster, and better than the original group, proving once and for all that he doesn’t need to do a reunion, because he has the best players in the music business in his band these days. In a way, he’s right. The 2012 GnR features a top-notch lineup of hired guns including three amazing guitarists: DJ Asba (Sixx Am), Richard Fortus (Love Spit Love) and a dude named “Bumblefoot.” The bass is being masterfully handled by Tommy Stinson. Yes, the guy who provided the soundtrack to your college years as bass player for The Replacements. While on the keyboard godhead Dizzy Reed, who has been with Axl since “Use Your Illusions”, also remains a force.
An hour and a half in there was no denying that seeing Guns N Roses live in 2012 is a powerful thing. But it’s also an exhausting endurance contest. Standing through three or four cuts I’ve never heard to catch “It’s So Easy” ain’t so easy. Axl is so set on showing you how talented the band is that he overdoes it. Did we need Reed’s classical piano version of The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” or Stinson singing lead on some song we’ve never heard of? No, we didn’t. It was that sort of filler that stretches a shows into epic, 3 hour plus journeys. Elvis Presley had it right, you should always leave them wanting more. Not less.
The only other negative was that it felt like there was some trickery going on in places based on the band’s wardrobe. DJ Asba wore a top hat. Richard Fortus was sporting the exact same Johnny Thunders-esk flowing shirt, hippie jewelry and vest outfit Izzy Stradlin used to, making him look so much like Izzy that a tall stoner dude next to me remarked how stoked he was that Izzy was back in the band. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it wasn’t. Because to anyone who was uninformed or slightly impaired, from drugs or just vision-affected by old age, could easily be fooled into thinking they were seeing the original band. Not everyone at the show was a jaded know-it-all music journalist with powerful new nerd glasses!
At 2am, I finally quit. Not because it wasn’t one of the best rock shows I’ve seen in years. It truly was. But, unlike Axl (and my new stoner pal) I had to get up in a few hours and go to work. Maybe next time Axl should whittle it down a bit. There is something to be said for a band that comes out and delivers an hour set of back to back hits. With maybe 2 new songs thrown in for effect. Editing. I understand the show went on for at least a couple more hours after I left in which the band finally got around to playing “Paradise City”, “November Rain” and “Sweet Child Of Mine.” And I’m sure it was amazing. But who has that much time to commit to one rock show? Not me. No matter how solid it was.