Review: Guns N’ Roses is back. But where are Axl Rose’s snake hips?
You knew where you were. You were in the retirement home, baby.
At least that’s how it felt when Axl Rose, the sneering frontman who once used similar language to welcome listeners to the jungle, was wheeled onstage for the first full-scale concert in a much-hyped reunion tour by his influential hard-rock band, Guns N’ Roses.
The singer surprised fans in January by announcing that after years of public squabbling, he’d reteamed with Slash, the virtuosic, top-hat-wearing guitarist who helped found Guns N’ Roses in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and who quit a decade later. Not only that, but the band, also featuring original bassist Duff McKagan, had signed on to headline the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, set to begin Friday in Indio.
One of music’s most closely watched events, Coachella is a demanding gig for any group, let alone one that last performed together more than 20 years ago. (Since then, Rose has toured and recorded with various sidemen under the Guns N’ Roses name.) To get its bearings, the band arranged two warm-up dates at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas; it stoked anticipation further with a tiny club show April 1 at West Hollywood’s Troubadour, a proving ground for Guns N’ Roses in its early days.
But during that show Rose took a tumble, fracturing a bone in his foot. So instead of shimmying across the stage with the lithe, snake-hipped moves that made him a star, Rose performed Friday night in Las Vegas while seated on a kind of rolling throne decorated with lights and guitar necks, his left leg propped up in a cast. The singer had borrowed the rig, he said, from Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, who used it on tour last year after he broke his leg while playing in Sweden.
“You like my furniture?” Rose asked with a little chuckle not long into the 2 1/2-hour concert. Later, after having gotten up only to play piano and to hobble offstage several times to exchange one leather jacket for another, he thanked Grohl for the loan and said he could see how one might get accustomed to the kingly treatment.
The resulting spectacle emphasized two seemingly contradictory points about Guns N’ Roses. On one hand, the connection to Grohl, whose old band Nirvana famously delighted in antagonizing Rose, suggested that these former avatars of mainstream excess are now happily embraced by the edgy alternative culture that Coachella purports to represent. The link made Guns N’ Roses’ booking at the festival — where it will play alongside hipster favorites such as LCD Soundsystem and EDM stars including Calvin Harris — slightly less jarring.
Yet Friday’s concert also showed how fragile that newfound currency is. Deprived of Rose’s crucial physicality, Guns N’ Roses came close to looking like ordinary dinosaurs.
The problem wasn’t in what you could hear. Rounded out by players Rose employed in the years after Slash and McKagan left — keyboardist Dizzy Reed, guitarist Richard Fortus and drummer Frank Ferrer — as well as a fresh recruit in keyboardist Melissa Reese, this seven-member Guns N’ Roses sounded stronger than the band has in decades, with a rhythm section that rumbled like a “Nightrain,” as one vintage song was titled, and a guitar attack that could alternate between punky aggression and flowery lyricism.
Slash, especially, was making his value known as he ripped fierce, sometimes gorgeous solos in songs he helped write — hits such as “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Patience,” “November Rain” and “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” along with tunes from the most recent Guns N’ Roses album, 2008’s “Chinese Democracy,” in which he had no hand. The guitarist got several showcases too: a slinky rendition of the theme from “The Godfather” and an extended instrumental jam on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”; the latter segued, once Rose sat down behind a grand piano, into the sweeping coda of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos.
Friday’s show — a full-on arena production with carefully timed lights, booming pyrotechnics and flashy video sequences — also featured the band’s covers of “Live and Let Die” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” both as dramatically scaled now as they were when Guns N’ Roses was the biggest rock act in the world. And for hardcore fans, the group reached back for “Coma,” a rarely performed fever dream from 1991 that reminded you of its appetite for gloom.
Throughout it all, Rose showed off his still-impressive range, pivoting nimbly from a guttural croak in “It’s So Easy” to a high-pitched shriek in “You Could Be Mine” to a luscious croon in “This I Love,” which could’ve come from “The Phantom of the Opera.” During “Patience,” a folky acoustic ballad, he did some truly singular whistling.
Yet as confidently as Guns N’ Roses played Friday, the singer’s inability to move prevented the band from working up any of the sex or danger that distinguished it in the first place. The whole point of Axl Rose, a guy once known for performing in a pair of American-flag boxer briefs, is that he gets in your face; he taunts and seduces, acting out the belligerence and vulnerability in his music. Here he had access to none of that expressive power, and that gave the concert a weirdly muted vibe even as fireworks exploded behind him.
Grohl faced a similar challenge when he used the throne. But because the Foo Fighter presents himself so guilelessly, his injury made him only more cheerfully relatable. Rose, in contrast, has always enjoyed portraying the villain, a role that requires real strength but when played correctly never loses its twisted appeal.
You entered the T-Mobile Arena hoping to rediscover a rock star with a gloriously bad attitude. What you found was a 54-year-old man struggling against an all-too-human body.
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