Guns N' Roses Live in NYC

By Mick Stingley, Contributor
Monday, December 30, 2002 @ 3:42 PM

Axl & Co. Live at Madison Squa

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A rose by any other name…would still smell as sweet. – Shakespeare
A rose is a rose is a rose. – Gertrude Stein
“Hey folks- two of shit, is shit! If they really want to fuck you, they’ll give you three of these things…” – Dennis Miller

The eight-piece travesty called “Guns N’ Roses” dragged the memory of a once-great band through the early winter mud-stained snow of New York City tonight. I had mixed feelings about seeing this show, but had been very much encouraged by the many, many positive reviews I have been reading about this tour. Tonight’s performance at Madison Square Garden sold out in fifteen minutes when tickets went on sale. Impressive. Yet, I think it took less time for Axl to sell out his legacy. I understand line-up changes; I understand that people age; I understand the mixed reactions from die-hards and critics: but, after witnessing this evening’s performance, I don’t understand why or how, after an almost 10-year hiatus and after assembling a talented bunch of musicians, Axl Rose can fail so miserably and call it rock and roll.

At 9:55PM, the lights of MSG went down, and the capacity crowd began to cheer. The curtain in front of the stage was dropped to the floor and scuttled by a small crew, as the opening notes of “Welcome To The Jungle” were played (or looped) to the delight of the crowd. I myself was caught up in the excitement and promptly overtaken with the powerful feeling conjured up in this brief moment. The shared excitement-
“At last!”
“We have all waited so long…”
-was beguiling and deafening.
Yet the suspense was abridged even as Axl Rose’s voice pierced the darkness…” DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE? YOU’RE IN THE JUNGLE, BAY-BEE! YOU’RE GONNA DIIIIIEEEEE-UHHH!” That was it. That was the single most electric feeling a person can experience without benefit of a condom. For this fleeting moment, immersed in darkness and anticipation, everything was absolutely perfect.

Then they turned on the lights.

As the band began to perform, up went the pyro. Lights moved and blinked and flashed in and out with strobe effect then settled on the impressive stage. This stage was filled with musicians, and flanged left and right with ramps. A high, second tier behind this and above the amplifiers, featured the drummer and TWO keyboardists. Behind this were digital video screens, and behind that, a scrim decorated with Chinese characters. To the sides of the stage, were giant, Imax-style, state-of-the-art video screens. No matter where you sat, you were guaranteed to see the best of the evening’s events played out 20-feet high. The band rocked and the crowd jumped up and danced. Wearing an oversized New York Rangers (Messier) jersey, white sneakers, and shiny black running pants - (with his hair, whether braided or dreadlocked, pulled straight back from the forehead, and from the sides, and gathered over the rest of the thick ropes that fell from behind) - W. Axl Rose appeared, larger than life and screaming. Holding a wireless microphone with an oddly large red foam top, Rose belted out the song we have come to know and love since 1987, with, it should be said, incredible gusto.

The THREE guitarists, Robin Finck, Richard Fortus, and the much-talked-about Buckethead (wearing his kabuki-mask and upside-down KFC bucket/hat with the word “Funeral” pasted across the top), generated enough heat to warm the frozen streets outside, and pleasantly compliment the singer. Flanked by a low-key but flawless, aggressive drummer, Brain; the ex-Replacements bassist, (later introduced by Axl as “Thomas Eugene Stinson”); and rounded out with two keyboardists, the affable Dizzy Reed, and newcomer Chris Kittman; the band now called Guns N’ Roses proceeded to impress and stun the Tri-State audience for two solid hours.

“WTTJ” was finished with extra-long solo-ing, and the lights went out. When they came up, seconds later, the band shifted into “It’s So Easy.” This was delivered with the same incredible energy and showcased with deftly woven camera-work that might be best described as “Matrix” -style 3D, showing Axl and co. at center stage. Rose moved quickly, running side to side, up and down the ramps, while twisting and dancing between verses. He would continue in this way throughout the evening, to the engorged delight of the audience.

“Mr. Brownstone” followed. I was always under the impression this song was about the siren call of (heroin) addiction. Tonight, it seemed to be about nothing. The audience sang along and Axl danced and hopped and stomped on one foot. “We’ve been dancing with Mr. Brownstone…”

This is when it became clear to me I was no longer seeing Guns N’ Roses, a rock and roll band from Hollywood, I was seeing “Guns N’ Roses, The Musical Variety Show.”

Be that as it may, it was difficult not to enjoy the performance. Axl is a charismatic entertainer and appeared to be going to extraordinary lengths to erase the recent lackluster MTV appearance from memory and destroy any doubt whatsoever that he can no longer deliver the goods live. Yes, Axl Rose hit all the high notes, again and again and again, often delivering a line or a scream or a wail, then holding the mike slightly back from his open mouth and looking to the crowd as if to punctuate this very thing.

“Live And Let Die” came quietly after, in darkness, as the band harmonized on the song made their own many years ago. The crowd recognized and sang along: but as the singer’s voice turned from peace to war in the familiar rendering of the title, huge bursts of flame flew from the stage with each following drum blast. The keyboards chimed in with guitars and Madison Square Garden was awash in the cool rage of the Paul McCartney/James Bond flick classic. But was all this pomp and circumstance necessary? Isn’t the song good enough to stand on its own? The audience didn’t seem to care either way.

In what would precipitate a series of costume changes, more befitting a female pop singer, Axl returned in another New York Sports Team jersey. There would be about four or so such changes, and I lost track of what was what. Another Rangers shirt, a Knicks tank top, a Yankees button-down shirt, a Jets jersey…all oversized and pristine and all worn over a white long-sleeved-shirt. Strange that it should occur to me, but his arm tattoos were never shown. Not that it would matter anyway, just an observation. Perhaps Axl is a fan of New York Major League sports; but it smacked of a politician campaigning for office, gratuitously trying to engender support wearing team colors, unsubtly, and desperately proclaiming, “I am one of you.”

That aside, Axl addressed the audience for the first time, declaring, “This is a little song for Nine-One-One…for the strongest city in the world!” Needless to say, this was met with a deafening roar of support, which gave way to the second cover, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” Axl moved from side to side, walking slowly now, seeking the response to his call in chorus. This played almost exactly as it does on the recently live CD released a couple of years ago. It sounded fine; the crowd was elated, and offered lighters as they swayed in unison. It was, for New York City, quite beautiful.

The next song in was “Think About You,” once again mining Appetite For Destruction in what was played almost in it’s entirety this evening. During this song, Axl left for a few moments as the band played leads, only to return in time to hit the chorus. This became distracting during the night, as it would continue. A song would be played, and during the lead breaks, Axl would jog offstage for a few moments, then return.

“You Could Be Mine” came in following the thunderous drums and charging guitar. Once again, Axl was all over the place, only ducking out for a few moments during the leads.

At the end of the song, Axl solemnly introduced “Mr. Robin Finck” to the audience. Finck wears a shiny white outfit, which I would describe as a three-piece suit without the jacket. The top of his head is shaved, but he has long black hair that falls from the crown of his head below his shoulders. He is tall and gangly, and I am reminded of one of the characters from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, although, I cannot remember which one. His solo is simple, and free of excessive noodling. It is a slowly paced concerto that yields the opening notes of “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” The crowd goes wild, and sings along on the choruses, as we are treated to live images of girls in the front row dancing.

After this, Axl Rose speaks to the crowd. Bathed in spotlights, he holds the microphone in his hands, close to his chest, and, with seeming earnestness, thanks the NYC crowd. “This show selling out so fast…that meant a lot to me and really helped us out. Thank you.”

Then they played, “Out Ta Get Me.”

After this, now about an hour in, Axl returns from the back of the stage with a box of Krispy Kreme donuts. He walks back and forth and asks the crowd, “Is Conan here? Is Conan O’Brien here?” Most of us have no idea what he is talking about, but he explains that he heard his ‘friend’ Conan was here, “and since he’s been on a diet, I thought I would bring him something to eat….” Who knows what the hell that was about – Axl having fun, I guess. But as Conan does not appear, Axl offers doughnuts to the front row, finally giving the box to one person to pass around. “Courtesy of Axl’s White Trash Bistro Catering….”

At this point, a grand piano has been wheeled out, and Axl sits before the keyboard, and begins to play. He is starting to loosen up, and briefly sings, “The Asshole Song,” (a Monty Python-esque bit), before switching to a Scott Joplin ragtime kind of thing. Axl is all smiles, and stops to mug to the crowd as he plays. People are eating it up. Then, after a brief solo, begins the song, “November Rain.” This song plays to an excited, lighter-holding crowd, but it is as stiff and bloated as it ever was. During the coda, leads are squealed and sparks shower down from the rigging to splatter atop the piano and stage.

The lights do out and the crowd chants, “GUNS AND ROSES” over and over. Axl introduces a new song- “a little ditty about frustration and depression.” I think it is “Chinese Democracy.” It is terrific, and I am curious to hear more from the new record, in spite of my feelings about the show this evening.
“It sure sounds like Guns N’ Roses.” I think…
Another new song is brought out, not as good, and filled with samples of (and video images of) Martin Luther King, Jr. and even the Strother Martin sample from the opening of “Civil War.” Civil War might have been a better choice…

After this, the band is introduced by Axl, and, “from the farthest reaches of the galaxy, brought to you from deep space… Mr. Buckethead!” Here, Buckethead charms and delights the crowd with his dexterity with num-chuks, then picks up a Flying-V to solo wildly, incorporating bits of the main title of the Star Wars theme, and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

“Rocket Queen” comes in.
After this, he briefly mentions that, “This is a reunion of sorts… as I’ve been able to bring enough of myself together for you!” Then comes, “My Michelle,” during which Axl sort of dances like Ed Grimly meets Beavis. The audience loves it.

Here, Axl introduces a song with a story about their recent appearance in Chicago (the name of which is greeted with jeers). Apparently, a reviewer named John Parelles (I think from Rolling Stone), didn’t like something. Axl referred to him as “a pussy,” then finished with- “he might have been able to enjoy himself if he just used a little patience….” This odd rant aside, the band went into acoustic strumming while Axl whistled and brought in “Patience.”

Then came more from Appetite For Destruction, “Nightrain”; after this, Axl thanked the crowd, and the stage went dark. More cheers for “GUNS AND ROSES!” came up, and the band returned.

With video images of an American flag waving, Axl and co. returned to the stage to sing, “Paradise City.” Needless to say, the audience sang along, and loudly. This was the big finish, complete with pyro, fireworks, and confetti cannons which blew scraps of tissue paper all the way to the back of the Garden.

Axl concluded his show thanking the audience, and exclaiming, “We’ll see you this summer!”

As the lights came up and I filed out with the crowd, it was just after Midnight. A stroll past the merch stands is disquieting- baby dolls are 35 bucks; tee shirts 35 to 100 dollars. They all feature the new “GNR / Chinese Democracy Star,” which can be seen on their website, such that it is.

I guess everybody loved this show but me. Why didn’t I like it? Why do I feel like Kevin McCarthy running at the end of Bodysnatchers? For me, it is because Axl Rose has become less of a rocker and more like the host of a Disney Cruise Floor Show… an Academy Awards host, a ringmaster of the “Barnum And Bill Bailey Musical Review - Live!”: “Here’s the crazy guitarist you’ve all been hearing about! And over here we have some songs you might remember… I am your host, Mr. Rose… Welcome To The Fantasy Island Jungle…” The dirty, filthy, grimy, sleaze of a band that once filled the air with a feeling of danger and the guile of sonic excitement has become a party band, a faux-enigma, a Las Vegas revue. Since when does GNR need goofy antics and pyrotechnics; let alone EIGHT people to do the job of FIVE?
This is not rock and roll.
This is “GNR-Mania,” and I think it is terrible: as empty and fake and hollow as Celine Dion crooning AC/DC. The only thing missing was product endorsement and sponsorship from Pepsi. Yes, sadly, Slash and Izzy and Duff and even Matt are long gone- maybe never to return again; but in spite of the formidable playing of his talented new gang members, this “Guns” shoots blanks and the bloom is definitely off the Rose.

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