Review: Guns N' Roses at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip
Around the third-hour mark of Guns N’ Roses' House of Blues set, which wrapped up a three-date club swing Monday, a guy and his girl understandably looked as if they needed to call it a night. They put on their leather jackets and moved toward the club's exits around 3:15 a.m. Then, from their left, a drunk guy with a wispy blond pate swooped upon them. Like a circling falcon that had just spied a wounded hare, he cornered the two back into a grotto of the club. “This is GN’R on the Sunset Strip!” the stranger slurred. “You can’t go home yet, dude!”
The dude and his date stayed.
For those who have been waiting decades for the iconic L.A. band to return to the scene that birthed it fully formed as lithe, riff-slinging gods, this wasn’t just a kind of hard-rock Gettysburg reenactment. It was a cri de coeur for the idea that rock music -- played on guitars, sung by dudes in ripped jeans and vests with no shirts -- has not only never died but also has kept up a kind of underground resistance movement to the crafty, sleek dominance of pop. And that Axl Rose, for all the volatility and budget-sapping concept albums and curious sartorial choices, had become the movement’s Che Guevara.
To leave GN’R before the final curtain call -- even at 3:30 on a Tuesday morning -- was a kind of treason. The lifer fans at the House of Blues were having none of that.
For those who’ve caught a recent arena date at the Forum or one of the other club shows, this most recent GN'R appearance is but further encouragement for the devoted. Acolytes of late-era GN’R lineup changes will be pleased to know that cameos from former drum ace Bryan Mantia and guitarist Robin Finck suggest that all’s well in those camps (fans expecting a certain top-hatted axman to return to the fold should, at this point, find a new improbable fantasy to pursue). Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach went toe to toe with Axl wailing on “My Michelle.” They covered Aerosmith’s “Mama Kin” and the Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” both early-'90s covers for the group. We heard Lana Del Rey was in the audience.
The band’s taken a lot of undeserved guff for being, to the purists, not really “Guns N’ Roses” but “Axl and a Bunch of Dudes.” But this lineup is probably the most well-honed mercenary army in modern rock: the guitar troika of Richard Fortus, DJ Ashba and Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal tossed licks on “Appetite for Destruction”-era tracks such as “It’s So Easy” and “Mr. Brownstone” that hit like live grenades. For the cool kids, the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson held down a savage low end.
And the band’s perennial X factor, the wayward native son of Lafayette, Ind., looked as healthy and serpentine as ever. His falsetto might have lost a half step in the intervening decades. But for someone in the early '90s placing bets on Axl’s status in 2012, Rose’s hip-swinging lechery at the House of Blues would have more than covered the spread on that wager.
The existential question of any Guns N’ Roses set -- what does Axl do when he disappears into his side-stage curtained chamber? -- might never be solved. Some think it’s for a hit of oxygen, some suspect it’s just for costume changes, some have more radical and spurious ideas. About every three songs or so, he'd slip away for the duration of a long guitar solo.
But while Axl had a literal Rock and Roll Fortress of Solitude onstage, so too did his fans at the House of Blues. GN’R back on the Strip was, for three hours and change, a place where survivors could cordon off the outside world and breathe the pure, invigorating air of the music they know. Not just the songs themselves, but the idea that men with guitars can still command crowds through force of will and implied sexual prowess. Guns N Roses is making what’s perhaps the last stand of an entire value system in music, and that resonates in its fans’ marrow.
There has always been a sadness to Guns N' Roses -- and not in the spectacle of a 50-year-old man wearing a snakeskin-patterned fedora onstage. When Axl sat alone at a piano before the forlorn “Patience” (and we defy any of you children running around South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, this week to write a better ballad), he showed the side of his personality that fights his war out of love. The man has seen and done things in Los Angeles to make Pharaohs blush, and yet there he was, past closing time, playing a lonely melody on a barroom instrument.
Yeah, the whole set was indulgent and exhausting and completely out of step with irreversible tides in pop music and its demographics. “Chinese Democracy” probably didn’t need to come out. But GN’R on the Strip in 2012? Dear reader, it was worth staying to the end.
-- August Brown
Photo: Guns N' Roses at the House of Blues on Monday, March 12, 2012. Courtesy House of Blues Entertainment.