“Good morning,” Axl Rose declared with a grin New Year’s morning at the House of Blues during his first live performance with Guns N’ Roses in more than seven years. “I’ve just woke up. I’ve been taking a nap for about eight years.”
If waiting all these years for the return of what was the most explosive hard-rock band of its generation wasn’t enough for fans, they also had to wait until nearly 4 a.m. for Rose and the new Guns lineup to take the stage.
But drama seems an inescapable part of Rose’s world.
The most suspense Monday revolved around the show itself.
Eight years away from the action is an eternity in the fickle world ofpop-rock, so the question on the minds of the sold-out crowd, many of whom came from Los Angeles and paid far above face value for the $150 tickets, was whether Rose’s new material and bandmates would satisfy their appetites.
The performance--whose scheduled 1 a.m. starting time was pushed back because a Goo Goo Dolls concert at the venue didn’t end until after midnight--began amid a storm of flashing lights and the familiar staccato guitar riff of “Welcome to the Jungle,” the band’s 1987 breakthrough hit.
Rose, appearing superbly confident, then marched abruptly to the stage, his red hair back down to his shoulders, his wailing vocals easily hitting the old screeching high notes. For all the mystery and uncertainty that has surrounded him in recent years, it was like he’d never left.
Guns N’ Roses first exploded out of the Los Angeles ‘80s metal scene with a sound mixing classic rock melody with real grit, raunch and dementia. If those hard-rock excesses sometimes drifted into cliched excess, the band was never less than genuine in its bad habits, which in later years degenerated into infighting and self-destruction.
By the early ‘90s, Guns N’ Roses seemed the rightful heirs to a certain brand of potent, defiant, straight-ahead, big rock ‘n’ roll, epitomized by the Rolling Stones. The inability of the original Guns N’ Roses lineup to hang together and build on the monumental stature was a tragic failure of potential and nerve.
With the likes of Rage Against the Machine and Korn crafting a new, dynamic metal blend, Rose will never again enjoy that kind of influence, but his appearance here could mark the beginning of a new period for him as a surprisingly forceful player of contemporary rock, not unlike the resurgence experienced by Aerosmith in the late ‘80s.
At the House of Blues, Rose and the new Guns N’ Roses band focused largely on familiar material, which was played with unexpected fire and precision.
It was an unlikely cast of characters sharing the stage, including (in the sidekick role of Slash) the eccentric guitar virtuoso Buckethead, known for his robotic stage movements and for wearing a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket as a hat. The band also included former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, guitarists Robin Finck and Paul Tobias, former Primus drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia, and keyboardists Chris Pittman and Dizzy Reed, a longtime Guns sideman.
The band was extra tight musically without being mechanical, clearly feeding off its first time in front of a live audience. Buckethead and Finck were never showy as they traded sharp guitar leads during “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” while the crowd sang along.
The best news in Las Vegas for Guns followers was that the new material frequently held up against the band’s older work. The title song for “Chinese Democracy” (the album is scheduled for a June release) was lean, quick-paced and dramatic, constructed along dark, modern riffing and Rose’s impatient vocals.
Another new rock ballad, “The Blues,” was rich with melody and romantic torment. The singer also revealed a taste of the electronic-based experiments of these last several years with a song riddled with frantic beats and panicked vocals, landing somewhere in the vicinity of Prodigy.
Fans began lining up outside the House of Blues several hours before the scheduled 1 a.m. show time, many of them proudly dressed in vintage Guns N’ Roses T-shirts. Waiting patiently at the front of the line were a pair of Los Angeles 20-year-olds, Armen Gevorkian and Garen Garabidian, who bought their tickets online via EBay for $300 apiece.
Both first discovered Guns N’ Roses as children, not long after arriving as immigrants from Iran, and they expect to attend the band’s next gig, at the Rock in Rio festival later this month in Rio de Janeiro. Gevorkian had to skip work on Sunday to be in Las Vegas. “My boss was OK with that because he knows I’m crazy,” he said with a laugh. “And I was going to quit the job.”
Like many others in line, he said he was only slightly disappointed that the band on stage would not be the original lineup, saying, “Guns N’ Roses is all about Axl.”
That sentiment was echoed later in the show, when the crowd spontaneously began chanting: “Welcome back! Welcome back!” It was a disarming moment even for the notoriously strong-willed frontman, who could only smile and turn his head, seemingly speechless. “Now you’re embarrassing me,” he said.
Maybe so, but the most memorable aspect of Rose’s long-delayed return to the stage is that the singer never came close to embarrassing himself or the legacy of Guns N’ Roses.