In the fifty-years since Elvis laid down his first vocal at Sun Studios in Memphis, TN rock n' roll has become more than escapism and so-called "devil's music", but also a driving life force. We have been blessed with some truly magical artists who have elevated our hearts, minds and bodies: Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, The Ramones, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, AC/DC, Kiss, U2, REM, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Metallica and thousands upon thousand others. All of these acts mastered their craft and in their own way, changed the face of music. However, I'm not sure if there has ever been a group of artists in the annals of rock n' roll who were more mischievous, moody, maniacal, magical and miraculous than Guns N' Roses. With all that being said, they may also take the title as the most maddening group as well.
While I'm saddened by group dissolution and preventable deaths, I firmly believe that Moon, Hendrix, Joplin, Bonham, Morrison, Presley and Cobain all chose a path where there was no looking back. Whereas every member who has ever performed with Guns 'N Roses is still alive (and for the most part well). When they unleashed their brand of rock upon the world it was met with universal acceptance and I'm not sure if I've ever seen a band be admired, loved and reach such a wide and diverse group of people since the Beatles. Males, females, metal heads, rockers, punks all heralded and cherished GNR's brand of vicious rock and still do nearly two-decades later. Sadly, the group has largely existed in name only for the last thirteen years, but 2006 has proven to be a year in which the name Guns 'n Roses becomes more than a mere nostalgia trip.
Despite a brief interrupted tour in 2002, this is Axl Rose's first full year of touring since 1993. While I've heard reports of blazing nights and some solid bootlegs, I wasn't convinced I needed to see this incarnation of GNR. Here's my reason why; There was a time in the mid 1980's where Keith Richards and Mick Jagger did not see eye to eye. As a result, Jagger went solo on a tour to Australia and Japan, territories the Stones had never been to. Not only did this infuriate Richards as these were territories the Stones had never visited where large amounts of money could be made, but more importantly, his partner went there without him. These two men had built so much together and yet one was standing on the sidelines watching his partner claim all the glory. Richards fill in was virtuoso guitarist Joe Satriani, who is a top flight guitarist, but he doesn't have the same history with Mick. Great musicians don't make great bands. Since then Jagger and Richards reconciled and have only played the classic Stones songs with each other enhancing their legacy and legend. My generations version of the Stones, Guns 'N Roses, has spent the better part of the last thirteen-years out of the consciousness of the public, but never far from our hearts and minds.
I received a last minute phone call to review the GNR show and I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to go. I wasn't sure if I could reconcile these new musicians no matter how talented they may be. I overcame my reservations and headed out to the Allstate Arena where Axl Rose and seven supporting musicians, better knows as Guns 'N Roses hit the stage at 11:35pm. Before the band hit the show, I wasn't sure what to expect. They arrived on stage amidst an army of pyrotechnics and strobe light madness with an appetite for destruction. The crowd response was deafening which makes me wonder what reaction a full fledged reunion could bring. A reunion of this type could break all box office records. When Axl Rose screeched his way on stage, it was with an appetite that I would say is close to being unheralded in my lifetime.
The opening trio of songs were all from "Appetite For Destruction" ("Welcome To The Jungle", "It's So Easy", "Mr. Brownstone") and the in succession performances put the crowd in a maddening trance. It became very apparent it would be far too easy to label these musicians as a glorious cover band. This is far more than Axl and a bunch of arbitrary musicians. Each member was handpicked by Axl for not only being a masterful musician but also a spellbinding performer as well. A lot of discussion has been had on each of the band members and how they'll never compare to the original line up. I was one of those who had my doubts but can tell you that after seeing this eight-piece band shred through a two-hour plus show, these guys are no slouches. What you have here is not even an All Star team of musicians, but better, a group of guys who have chemistry and who are pulling off the impossible every night by winning each crowd over. Bassist Tommy Stinson roamed the stage like a veteran; while guitarists Robin Finck and Richard Fortus roamed the stage doing a damn good job on making most of the audience, even if it was briefly, forget about top hats and faceless guitarists.
Axl Rose is an artist whom I have followed since the band's inception and in truth, I'm not sure if I could ever put the artist's actions into context, but I do know this, he will not go on stage until he is ready to give 110% of himself to that crowd. He plays by his rules and no others, not because of ego, but because he's a perfectionist. I assisted journalist Lonn Friend with his recent memoir, "Life on Planet Rock" which allowed me into the inner workings and mind of Axl Rose. Aside from long time confidant Del James and former GNR manager Doug Goldstein, I'm not sure if anyone else really understood Axl as much. However, I must admit to proofing and assisting with the book and being mystified by the stories and thought process of the legendary front man, yet after seeing the drive and determination with which he put forth during these opening numbers, I can now say that I get it. Axl is a true rock n' roll renegade that will do things on his own time and his own way. How else could he pull off two national tours without a new record in stores? From a business perspective, it makes no sense to tour without a new album and this is the third time Guns 'N Roses has done this ('91, '02 and '06) in their career.
The long awaited "Chinese Democracy" is still not on any release schedule, but it did not stop him from performing five songs from the album. "Chinese Democracy" and "IRS" are reminiscent of how one could imagine GNR in the 21st Century. "The Blues" and "Madagascar" were moody ballads, the latter of which bore images of political uprisings from the 60's on the screen behind Axl when performed. However, there is one new song that stood apart from the rest; "Better". A bootleg of this track leaked earlier this year and I will say that it is on par with anything Axl Rose has ever created. This triumphant composition is a cinematic poem filled with fuming guitars and perfectly textured harmonies. When one hears a song like "Better", you realize the potential that "Chinese Democracy" holds. But until it is released, we'll have to be content with the concert experience.
As Robin ended his solo and launched into "Sweet Child O' Mine", the crowd responded with a response so magnetic, one had to see it to believe it. I'm not sure if there is an album from the last twenty-five years that still continues to grow, develop and resonate more than "Appetite For Destruction". Not only do people know every word to the singles, but they know every word to all twelve compositions. Most shockingly, the new band performed these songs to perfection as if they have been performing them for decades. The seductive power with which they were delivered to the audience was hypnotic. Something I didn't expect to see, nor did I want to see, was a band who made this material their own and this current incarnation did just that. What the current band lacks in history they more than make up for in their resolve and willpower.
While these performers took these songs to soaring heights, Axl Rose covered every foot of the stage and sprinted across it as if it were 1988 not showing his age at all. There have been numerous articles over the years that feel that Axl mistreats his fans with constant delays, late start times, and cancellations...but after assisting Lonn Friend with his memoir and now witnessing this show, I don't believe that is the case. The truth is that Axl Rose hits that stage planning on giving the audience his all and draining every last ounce of sanity from himself in the process as well. He views the concert stage as his work desk and when people distract him with fights up front, unnecessary shoving and flashes going off, he sees these people as interrupting his job and wants them removed so he can continue to give the rest of the audience his complete and total focus. Axl Rose is attempting to accomplish the impossible and even though the task of rebuilding GNR is maybe the most daunting task ever done in the annals of rock, there is no mountain Axl will not climb to bring his vision to reality, no matter how long it takes.
As the evening continued, there were intermittent solos between suites of songs by assorted members of the band. Keyboardist Dizzy Reed, the only member to continually stand shoulder to shoulder with Axl over the last fifteen years, had the evening's most sublime moment with a piano led solo of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps'. Reed's playing was so dead on and inspirational that photographer Rob Grabowski commented to me that it was the highlight of the show for him. Something people tend to forget and overlook is that Dizzy Reed joined the band during the recording of the "Use Your Illusion" albums. He is the only member left from that era who is still in the band and after seeing his solo, I'm glad he stood by Axl's side as he brings not only musical aptitude but history with him as well. Guitarist Richard Fortis performed "A Winter Shade of Pale" during his solo and the unbelievably gifted guitarist Bumblefoot performed the complete elegiac "Don't Cry" instrumental to roars of approval. Many have criticized these solos as being unnecessary and long, however, I see them as giving these unknown musicians a chance to shine. Besides, these are more than just instrumentals; they are extended jams that are virtually songs within themselves and are anything but meandering and without purpose. The eighteen-song set had a total of eight songs performed off "Appetite" (including a vicious "My Michelle" with a guest appearance with Sebastian Bach), one from "Lies" (a reliable "Patience), four from the "Use Your Illusion" albums (including a soaring "November Rain") and five from the still unreleased "Chinese Democracy" (with the aforementioned future classic "Better").
I'll be the first to admit it was eerie seeing the non-classic line up of Guns 'N Roses perform these songs, however, they were delivered to the Chicago audience with romantic sincerity as if the evening was an epic love poem delivered by an eight-piece band. What impressed was not the sentimental essence of these songs but the overall esoteric nature of the evening. The context with which these songs were written and recorded will never be erased. Yet, these songs still speak volumes to the here and now and Axl is bringing them to the crowd not because of nostalgia, but because he has something to prove. When you want to see truly incendiary performances, there is nothing greater than seeing an artist who has something to prove. In the same building, once known as the Rosemont Horizon, I saw Jon Bon Jovi leave a pint of blood on this stage in 1993 and again in 2000 wanting to prove the naysayers wrong as he tore through two of the longest and wildest shows of his career. I've never forgotten those shows because he had something to prove. I'm not sure if I've seen another artist of Bon Jovi's stature fight as hard until now with Axl. The critics can go ahead and flame him if they want, they just don't get it. With few exceptions, I haven't seen a club act give this much of their body, mind and sanity. Will the new incarnation gauge the emotional weight of their predecessors? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, they out there rocking their hearts out with a vigor and resilience I doubt you will even see from the most driven club act. Getting used to this incarnation will come with time...and a little patience.
Anthony Kuzminski can be found at: Anthony Kuzminski.