Even on a sticky Halloween night in Florida, with much of the crowd in costume and spooky holiday decor swinging from the rafters, nothing could quite out-weird the main spectacle: watching 1/8th of Guns N’ Roses perform a batch of 20-year-old smashes — as well as a few from a record originally slated for release during the first Clinton administration — in front of, among other things, a large and inflatable Homer Simpson balloon.
Welcome to the jungle, kids. We’ve got fun and games.
Or, more accurately, welcome to whatever this is. Well, what do you call this ragged Frankenstein’s monster of a band these days: GNR of the 21st Century? Guns Minus Everyone But Axl? The GNR Experience Feat. Mr. Rose And His Band Of Merry Pranksters? Or, in a time when nostalgia rock is about the only safe bet, when Queen can tour without Freddie and half of the Who is one of the biggest games in town, is 2006 Guns N’ Roses merely another case of Hardly Authentic But Good Enough?
Needless to say, one puts up with a lot in catching the remnants of GNR these days (to be fair, it’s actually 1/4th of the classic lineup, if you count keyboardist Dizzy Reed). There’s the wacky stage time (a classically Rose-ian midnight on a Tuesday), the wearying wait for an alleged new record and the small matter of all the Guns exiles who don’t come around anymore.
But maybe the strangest thing is that for all its some-assembly-required vibe, Rose’s band knows how to tear up an arena show. Sure, these are hired hands, and Slash would be pleased to know that Rose requires three guitarists to replace/recreate him: ex NIN-ster Robin Finck, now a dead ringer for Matisyahu; journeyman Richard Fortus; and, replacing Buckethead, Ron Thal, who goes by Bumblefoot. You can’t make this stuff up. But these guys bring the noise.
Moreover, Rose, impossibly, frustratingly, remains as galvanizingly watchable a frontman as you’re likely to find anywhere. The charisma? Enviably intact. The vocals? Strained, but often thrilling. The drive is back, too — sometime between Guns’ aborted 2002 run and today, Rose relocated his give-a-damn, and he prowls the stage with an intensity and ambition that sometimes outweighs his reach, but is crazy to witness. When he’s on and his voice is doing age-defying triple salchows on “Welcome to the Jungle” and “It’s So Easy,” he’s cornrowed lightning.
And for about half of the two-hour set, that’s all you really need. Tracks like “Jungle,” “Mr. Brownstone” and even “Live and Let Die” are meteor impacts — so much so, in fact, that Rose adhered almost exclusively to songs from about 1987. This night, he was solely interested in the most glorious of the glory days, bringing out the big, boozy, misogynistic WMDs from “Appetite” (“Nightrain,” “Out Ta Get Me,” “My Michelle”) — and only invited songs from the “Use Your Illusion” discs that originated in the “Appetite” era, like “November Rain” and “You Could Be Mine.” He’s consciously blacking out a decent chunk of catalog here.
But all the grand setup leads into a weird payoff. Because after a massive opening salvo, reality begins to creep in with “Better,” allegedly the first single from the new album (the expensive-looking Eastern backdrop indicated Rose remains apparently serious about this “Chinese Democracy” thing). Chunky riffs aside, “Better,” charitably speaking, ain’t no “Brownstone.” And due to lots of things — that inhospitable stage time (for which a smirking Rose denied credit), his penchant for vanishing from the stage for long stretches (though it added to his enigmatic legacy, one begins to wonder if he’s really up to this) and pacing issues, the show begins to grow cold and distant, despite the valiant efforts of its frontman.
Oh, and this keeps coming up, too: Who the hell are these people?
Rose’s minions are dressed like a ragtag pomo art outfit: keyboardist Chris Pittman’s in an ivory-white suit, Tommy Stinson rocks plaid pants, and Bumblefoot has the name Bumblefoot. All have creative Tomorrowland haircuts (it was hard to tell what was a Halloween costume and what wasn’t). But Rose has them faithfully recycle songs and solos as recorded by another guy 20 years ago. He takes great pains to project a vibe of forward-thinking, then consents to a jarring cameo by cornball Sebastian Bach, who in his opening set performs a song called “Love Is a Bitch Slap” to emphasize all you don’t miss about buttless-chaps metal.
He adheres to a schedule of L.A. rock club ethics that doesn’t so much apply in Jacksonville early in the week. And he grants all three guitarists interminable, momentum-killing solos; Fortus used his to jam on Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” and you weren’t sure what his intentions were, much like you’re not sure what Rose’s are.
Axl is capable of transcendent power: “Paradise City” seethed and roared, “You Could Be Mine” worked up a mighty head of steam and if there’s a better way to open a rock show than with “Welcome to the Jungle,” someone E-mail me about it. And Rose seemed to be alternately salivating at and resentful of the challenge of carrying this load on his shoulders.
But to what end? In the sense that anticipation is generally better than the experience (I’m looking at you, god-awful “Star Wars” prequels), the mystique of Rose’s alleged “Democracy,” if you’re not bored of the entire episode in the first place, will spot-evaporate the day it’s released. One wonders if Rose wouldn’t be better served to leave it in the can until he’s 60 and then bingo, it’s “Smile.”
In those glory days, Guns N’ Roses was just about as good it got. But its hole card now is an album that might not exist, and once “Democracy” rises and falls, Guns N’ Roses, which can now maintain a spooky sense of mystery, will be very likely trading the night train for the nostalgia train, whoever the hell’s in it. But in the meantime, GNR still can rock your night, or early morning, with a primal power. Just bring a friend to help carry along the baggage.
Here is Guns N’ Roses set list:
“Welcome To The Jungle”
“It’s So Easy”
Robin Finck solo
“Sweet Child O’ Mine”
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
“You Could Be Mine”
Dizzy Reed solo
Richard Fortus solo (includes “Beautiful”)
“Out Ta Get Me”
Bumblefoot solo (includes “Don’t Cry”)
“My Michelle” (with Sebastian Bach)