Pop Music Review: Axl Rose guns it but races aimlessly
Toward the end of a 3-hour concert, Guns N’ Roses really catches fire. But the urgency of the old messages goes largely missing.
Guns N' Roses took 21/2 hours Wednesday night at the Forum to justify the dimensions of the concert it was playing. The song that flipped the switch was “Nightrain” — from the Los Angeles hard-rock institution's 1987 debut, “Appetite for Destruction” — and it had all the runaway energy of its subject, gathering speed as it hurtled forward in a pressurized blur of guitars, drums and the superhuman wail of frontman Axl Rose.
Prior to “Nightrain,” which ended the band's main set, Wednesday's show offered the raw materials of excitement: lights, pyrotechnics, three adventurously attired men playing guitar simultaneously. But the band didn't corral those elements in the service of a larger, more coherent thrill until the show's end, and once it did, Guns N' Roses left the stage.
Withholding a sense of purpose was one of the many ways Rose exercised his obsession with control during this three-hour blowout, one of the last dates on Guns N' Roses' first American tour since 2006. (The 49-year-old singer is the band's sole remaining original member; he's flanked by seven additional musicians of varying vintage.) Rose also flexed his strength by subjecting the enthusiastic crowd to extended solos by those three guitarists. And he successfully sold extravagantly florid piano ballads — real “Phantom of the Opera”-type stuff — to a room swimming with testosterone.
Yet if the concert demonstrated that Rose remains a considerable pop-cultural force — an icon due for induction next year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — it suggested too that he's grown unsure of what to do with his power. Guns N' Roses in its heyday seemed to overflow with big ideas about love and war and sex; on Wednesday, though, an old tune like “You Could Be Mine” felt stripped of context, accompanied by generic-looking race-car footage that made no connection with whatever the song might once have been putting across.
Some material from “Chinese Democracy,” the endlessly delayed studio album Guns N' Roses finally released to perplexed reaction in 2008, flailed similarly — in particular “Madagascar,” which washed out in a sea of signifiers, including wild-animal video clips and the sampled voice of Martin Luther King Jr. At least two dozen times throughout the concert, Rose disappeared into a kind of improvised dressing room at one side of the stage, and it was tempting to wonder if he was in there rummaging around for something — for anything — to say.
Occasionally Rose made do without a message, as in a gorgeous rendition of the power ballad “Don't Cry” and in the poisoned pop of “Better,” a highlight from “Chinese Democracy” that showcased the astonishing things the singer can still do with his voice. Guns N' Roses' elaborate cover of Bob Dylan's “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” was even more impressive in that regard, with Rose cycling through countless vocal tics, mannerisms and put-on accents that evaporated after a single phrase.
Guitar nuts had plenty to marvel at Wednesday, as well, even if it took the band's three current axmen — DJ Ashba, Richard Fortus and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal — to reproduce ex-Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash's expansive solo in “November Rain.”
Not long after that song (from 1991's “Use Your Illusion I”), Rose and his bandmates began the upward climb toward “Nightrain.” It was past 1 a.m. by that point, and you could sense Rose at last beginning to slip into the role he once played with an almost terrifying intensity. “It's been a real nightmare making this show happen,” he told the audience, alluding to a contract dispute with former Guns N' Roses manager Irving Azoff. “They've been trying to squeeze us in a smaller box.”
Rose's well-established paranoia makes it hard to know what to do with that claim. But there's no denying that the mere mention of an obstacle pushed the singer into overdrive. Having exhausted all other sources of substance, he found meaning in resistance.
Photo: Axl Rose of Guns n Roses on the video screen and lower right of the stage. Review of Guns n Roses show at The Forum on Dec. 21, 2011. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho