Monday, June 12, 2006

Guns N' Roses (live review)

Hammersmith Apollo, London, June 7

Welcome to the jungle: three and a half hours after the doors of the venue open, the main act shows no sign of taking the stage. The mixed crowd - virginal looking young men, thirtysomethings with anachronistic haircuts - are clearly displeased with the delay. They boo between the rock anthems blaring out of the PA, long after support act Avenged Sevenfold have finished their set.

They don’t know that a certain W. Axl Rose, lead singer and sole remaining original member of Guns N’ Roses, has issued an ultimatum. “We know he’s in the building,” says one of the backstage managers at the Hammersmith Apollo, as if this is an achievement in itself. “He’s just insisting he needs two masseuses for a ‘Deep Heat massage’ before he goes on stage. He fired both his personal masseuses this morning. He’s also complaining because his personal hairdresser (from Africa) couldn’t enter the country because of visa issues. But there’s not much we can do about that.” As an excuse for keeping 5,000 paying customers waiting, it’s up there with throwing a hissy fit because M&Ms of the wrong colour have been found in the dressing room bowl. “This might be the worst act I’ve dealt with,” says the exasperated concierge. “It’s certainly up there with Velvet Revolver (the band comprising of Rose’s former GnR bandmates) who delayed a gig for 90 minutes until we got them a homemade Shepherd’s Pie. If this goes on much longer, I think there might be a riot... excuse me,” he breaks off, one ear pressed to his walkie-talkie: “a fight just broke out in the stalls...”

For the self-proclaimed “Most Dangerous Band In The World,” a riot due to a delayed or cancelled show is not without precedent. But then, for Guns N’ Roses, not many aspects of rock’n’roll behaviour are without precedent. Rose presumably found someone to rub him up the right way, even at such short notice: when he does finally make it on stage just before 11pm, with the 2006 version of GnR striking up Welcome to the Jungle, the weary audience is immediately roused, and immediately forgiving.

This London appearance, a warm-up for their headlining slot at the Download festival, in Donington Park, follows dates in New York as the band’s first gigs since 2002. The seasoned line-up assembled by Rose - Tommy Stinson (bass), Richard Fortus (guitar), Robin Finck (guitar), Chris Pitman (keyboard), Dizzy Reed (keyboard), “Brain” (drums) and new guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (who only joined the band last month) - confidently swap the riffs of a string of old favourites to open the show, including It’s So Easy, Mr Brownstone, Live And Let Die, and Sweet Child O' Mine.

In a series of outfits and sunglasses, with diamond jewellery and teeth flashing, Rose appears very much at home as the grand rock showman - except for his red and yellow dreadlocks and ginger facial hair; they merely make him look like a cross between Mick Hucknall and Metallica's James Hetfield. The 44-year-old’s reputed face-lifts are indicated, too, by his pinched features and unblinking eyes, and he’s sweating profusely as early as the second song as he pirouettes and canters restlessly around the tiered stage. Yet his voice – always a fantastic blend of catty screech and resonant bellow – appears untainted by the ensuing years of ultimate rock star indulgence and prima donna delay. The world is still waiting, a reputed $13 million later, for Chinese Democracy, the album his band started recording in 1998. It’s now scheduled for release this autumn, but that’s not a date to hold your breath over.

Two tracks from the new album, Madagascar and Better, exhibit militaristic drums and a certain nu-metal swagger, but in term’s of both the audience’s reaction and the band’s energy, they pale in comparison with the ensuing You Could Be Mine, and a drawn-out Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. Another new song, IRS, ostensibly a bombastic swipe at an anonymous former lover, namechecks the President, the FBI and the taxman as co-conspirators, but is merely an extension of Rose’s own persecution complex, summarised in the rebel yell of Out Ta Get Me.

Prone to virtuosic, if overlong, fret-tapping solo spots, the Axl Rose Backing Band (for that is what GnR amounts to these days) seem less comfortable playing the sluggish new material than their own guitar improvisations on Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful, or the familiar riffs of Night Train and Paradise City, which are rapturously received and accompanied by exploding fireworks and flame-belching cannons. Former Skid Row frontman, Sebastian Bach, comes on, hair akimbo, for a brief cameo appearance during My Michelle. When November Rain reaches its guitar-led epilogue, it is hard to deny that Guns N’ Roses are back - for the moment at least – there’s certainly enough old-school entertainment value from these familiar hits to justify the Apollo staying open past its usual curfew. But as the crowd starts to thin out before the clock strikes 1am, the occasion seems far from riotous. In fact, it's more like a karaoke singalong.

Guns N' Roses setlist

Welcome To The Jungle
It's So Easy
Mr Brownstone
Live And Let Die
Sweet Child O' Mine
You Could Be Mine
Knockin' On Heaven's Door
The Blues
Outta Get Me
November Rain
My Michelle
Night Train
Paradise City


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