It's been nine years since Axl Rose elected to go into his self-created retirement/exile. Nine years since he has toured the United States, and eleven years since he has released an album of new material. It would be hard to deny that within the past decade Axl has had a less than perfect relationship with the other original members of G n R. Co-founders Slash and Duff left the group years ago; leading many fans to think the band would be no more. This would not be case, however, within the mind of frontman Rose. Instead of letting laying the band's name to rest in the annals of rock legendary a la Led Zeppelin, Axl opted to buy out the name from the other original members and head out with a backing band of completely new hired guns.
While he could have easily booked a tour on his solo name power alone, he instead chose to gleam off the time honored G n R trademark, a move many consider one of the music industry's biggest taboos. After several line up changes, the band now consists mainly of unheard-of musicians plucked by Axl from other bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Primus. The most notable addition to G n R is avant-garde solo guitarist Buckethead, whose underground credibility undoubtedly is something Axl recognized and hoped to cash in on.
Axl has created a name for himself as being one of rock's most unpredictable and pretentious characters. It's no secret that he has the hair trigger temperament to walk off stage at any given time or to fail showing up all-together. It was this very behavior that spurred a riot in Montreal during the "Use Your Illusion" tour when he left after only a few songs due to what he has since claimed "vocal difficulties". It was no surprise to read in the paper that he was a no show for his opening gig in Vancouver BC Apparently he was tied up at the airport from a late flight from Los Angeles. The truth behind this reasoning is anyone's guess, but it certainly created a lot of pissed-off fans who had been literally left in the cold waiting for Axl to show up. Being the day after the Vancouver fiasco, and now officially becoming the tour's opening night, all eyes were going to be placed on Tacoma, Washington to see what Axl would do next.
I arrived at the venue at about 8:00 PM, half an hour after the show's listed start time to a less than full audience. Many of the seats were empty and the floor area seemed at about 3/4 capacity. I unfortunately missed the opening band CKY, who had just been announced as the tour's openers only two days before. The second opening act, Beastie Boys' DJ Mix Master Mike, was spinning a mix of rock and hip-hop beats when I arrived and continued for close to 45 minutes. I really enjoyed his set, but couldn't help but think how much things have changed since the days when I saw Skid Row open for the band in the very same place a decade ago to a nearly maximum capacity audience. Mix Master Mike got a warm response from the crowd, which came somewhat as a surprise to me since I had expected everyone there to be from a much different scene. Instead of the mullets and faded T-shirts which I had assumed would fill the place, I saw sea of people in their early 30's, many with closely cropped hair and polo shirts on. My how things have changed.
After another thirty minutes for Mix Master Mike to leave the stage and to set up for the main act, the lights finally were shut off to the sound of thousands of anxious cheers. I positioned myself on the floor about 15 feet from the stage, which seemed rather unusual for me to be able to get that close so easily. I had prepared myself for a surge of people to push into me, which to my surprise never happened. I guess G n R fans aren't as rabid as they used to be. The cheering crecendoed as soon as the opening guitar line to "Welcome to the Jungle" shot from the PA system. In a flash of light and pyrotechnics the band took the stage, with Axl shooting to center stage in his famous side step swagger.
The stage consisted of video screens in the background alternating close-up footage of the band with pre-recorded video imagery. Drummer Brain was positioned on a riser above the rest of the band with ramps leading to him on both sides of his kit. Both sides of the stage featured wings jutting into the audience for the band to run out on and give the folks in the seats better view. The lighting rig could raise and lower itself giving a different look for each song played. After seeing so many shows in small clubs lately, I will admit it was pretty exciting to be a part of the grandiose area rock experience once again.
The set consisted of a majority of material coming from the band's zillion selling debut "Appetite for Destruction". Of the albums twelve tracks, ten were performed live at the show. This was another surprise for me, since I've heard Axl mention that he didn't want to become some "rock karaoke" act of has beens. While I am not saying that I wasn't happy to hear so many of the classics from that album, it seemed like using so much material from that one album was somewhat of a desperate attempt to rekindle the fire from his glory days.
It's ironic that he mentioned the word "karaoke" in describing what he did not want to be, because it became completely apparent that the show was just that. It was no longer Guns n' Fuckin' Roses, it was Axl Rose and his Fuckin' cover band. While they are certainly a great bunch of musicians, the new members seemed to lack any of the chemistry that made the original line up so great. Long gone are the days of Slash leaning onto Duff's back as he busts out the opening riff to "Sweet Child O Mine". The urgency and drive of the old Sunset Strip glam-punk "Appetite" G n R was nowhere to be seen. Each member just looked like he belonged somewhere else other than under the moniker of Guns N Roses. If you would have told me 10 years ago that Slash would be replaced by a numchuck wielding guitarist with a KFC bucket on his head, I would have said you were out of your mind. Sure, Axl did the spastic jaunts across stage and his obligatory swagger dance, but it that he alone could not make the show compare to what it used to be.
Axl is no longer the svelte heroin-chic front man he used to be. Many of his years of isolation must have been spent eating, since his face is much more rotund now and he no longer is able to perform without a shirt on. Now he relies on wearing baggy football jerseys with braided hair under his trademark bandana. Rumors were flying around the audience that his hair is now braided to hold hair extensions covering his thinning scalp. His voice is far from the raspy banshee wail he produced on his albums. Now he lets out more of a breathless whine that relied heavily on the audience's help in singing the choruses to his songs, alternating lyrics with heavy gasps for air. His difficulty was even more apparent when he introduced three new songs in the set list. Since they were unfamiliar with the material, the lack of the audience's vocal support left him sounding extremely tired.
After running through such "Appetite" classics as "Out ta Get Me", "Nighttrain", and "Rocket Queen" as well as "Use Your Illusion" hits like "You Could Be Mine" and "November Rain", Axl left the stage only to return with an encore of "Paradise City". The song ended in a barrage of pyrotechnics and confetti with the house lights turning on to reveal a significant portion of the audience had actually left before the show was even over. While it was somewhat exciting to hear all my favorite songs performed in a live arena rock experience, I left the venue feeling like I just didn't get my money's worth. I confess I entered the show fully aware that Axl would be the only original member performing but I guess I had fabricated some illusion in my mind that it would be better than it really was. If taken for what it really is -just a cover band performing the hits of a band that used to be really great - I'll admit it's not that bad of a show. I just wish Axl would stop using the name Guns N Roses and go with something a little more accurate. Perhaps "Axl Rose's Traveling Hit Sing-Along" would be a bit more fitting.