Let me make one thing clear: I am a huge Guns N’ Roses fan. So this post about GNR’s latest performance at Rock In Rio will not qualify as unbiased journalism. If I can clarify further; Quentin Tarantino suggests that there are deciding questions that tell you a lot about people. Some questions only lead down two paths and there’s a lot to be learned about which way someone goes. QT says you can either be an Elvis or a Beatles person; you can like them both but nobody likes them both equally. Also, you’re either a Brady Bunch person or a Partridge Family person. I believe that, though everyone with half a brain should love GNR, you either side with Axl Rose or Slash. Whichever person you believe made Guns N’ Roses great, whichever one you think is the superior musician, whichever one was the brains of it all; when the dust settles you’re siding with one or the other. If GNR was part of the Twilight saga, there’d be t-shirts reading TEAM AXL or TEAM SLASH.
I side with Axl Rose.
I feel necessary to inform everyone that I love Slash and I think GNR would not have reached half as much success without his prowess behind a guitar. He is a hero of mine and will forever be a legend in the rock n roll universe. But when it comes to who I’d console first in an Axl/Slash bitch fest, I’d be running to Rose to tell him everything is alright and everyone but me and him is an asshole. Just being honest.
Now that that’s all out of the way, I can get on with the reporting. I logged onto my Twitter account and saw a link to live footage of GNR playing at Rock In Rio. I was amazed and excited to check out the action. The stage was massive and the audience numbered in the tens of thousands seemingly. Rain poured down and doused the circling cameras recording the feed, but the band played on regardless.
The first thing I notice is the yellow trench coated, fedora wearing Axl Rose prancing around the stage. His appearance shocks me. He’s got some weight packed on and isn’t the limber, feminine framed singer from his early years.
Axl leads his hired Guns through some of the original GNR hits like “It’s So Easy” and “Mr. Brownstone.” He doesn’t sound too impressive. Axl struggles to achieve his trademark shrieking notes. I’m put off because at times he sounds like myself when I try to sing like Axl Rose in my room, iPod buds deafening my ears, my pitch way off and hitting notes too high for my talent level.
When he kicks into “Sorry” from Chinese Democracy, he starts to sound better. Perhaps he was too excited during the old Appetite classics, but at this time he’s mellowed out and is focusing on his lyrics. But after the song is over, Axl takes one of his infamous breaks leaving the band to eat up time with some instrumentals.
He returns in a new outfit complete with leather jacket and Aviator sunglasses to belt out “Live and Let Die”. Axl is like an older vehicle that has been sitting docile for a few years. He’s slow to start up and a little shaky at first but once he warms up he cruises smoothly through his set. Axl starts stutter stepping across the stage and for a minute the world is transported back in time to the Use Your Illusion tours when Rose would sprint across stadium sized stages, torturing himself through songs for the benefit of the audience. Now, his clothes are a little more loose fitting than those days of spandex shorts but he’s moving along just the same.
When the bass riff for “Rocket Queen” kicks in I abandon all original qualms with the show and am fully hooked. I feel as jittery as anytime I listen to that blistering, epic tune unfold straight from Appetite for Destruction. When the cameras go wide on the stage I can see the jumbo screens are showing looped footage of a red haired female not doing anything particularly important. I imagine those were selected by Axl himself.
The hired Guns make up what they lack in soul and contribution with unparalleled talent. Like any mercenary, they are good at what they do and get the job done of filling in for their outdated but far more memorable predecessors. The multiple guitarists take turns rocking Slash’s solos. They hit each note with excellent precision but are still just place holders. DJ Ashba even makes the questionable move of wearing a top hat and playing a sunburst guitar. (Slash’s trademark guitar was a sunburst Les Paul.)
After “Estranged”, a tune Axl mentions not having played in over 18 years; he brings out his longtime confidant Beta. Axl has never looked happier when he playfully asks the crowd to help him solve a conflict by chanting “Beta” when he asks “who’s to blame?” He brings his closest friend onstage with her Brazilian father and sister. Axl beams like a proud son in this caring family’s shadow before moving into “Better” off the Chinese Democracy album.
Axl is in good spirits throughout the show which is a welcoming emotion for the sometimes easily enraged performer. He jokes frequently, even telling long time GNR keyboardist Dizzy Reed, “don’t fuck my piano. You can touch it just don’t fuck it.”
After what seems to be the end of the show, Rose returns for the encore with “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” and puts naysayers to rest with a really solid performance. This song was once used by a Los Angeles crowd pleasing, but not wildly known GNR, to quell crowds that were getting too rowdy from the rest of the blistering set. “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” was once one of the only slow songs in Guns N’ Roses’ arsenal to fend off wild audiences too hyped up from an hour of debauched madness nobody on Earth had ever seen before. Now, Axl and the new Guns N’ Roses don’t have to extinguish such a massive fire in the audience. But he still rocks the hell out of Bob Dylan’s words making it plain to see how Axl, like a snake charmer, could halt a venomous crowd’s strikes and subdue them to a gentle sway.
Axl is so very much at the peak of this night’s performance. He stumbles in the middle of the song to the overtly joyous quote of a kid mocking cartoons telling the audience to “be very, very quiet. I’m hunting wabitts.” And when he reaches the end of the song, he belts out a drawn out verse, able to hold the tune wonderfully in comparison to many moments in the night where his voice broke or he winded quickly. His eyes softly closed shut, he never sees a band mate trying to hand him a stuffed heart that might’ve been thrown on the stage from the crowd. In that moment, with his eyes closed and his voice soaring through Rio de Janeiro, I’d say that he might’ve been the happiest he’s been in a long time. Taking into mind that he spends many of his days in seclusion with only Beta as his link to the outside world, this is a rare opportunity for him to venture into the world and do what he loves.
The new GNR went on to end the show with “Paradise City”. Several outfit changes, songs from old Guns and new, and a few hats later; Axl Rose was ready to leave the two-level stage for the final time of the night. This time he wouldn’t escape to the mysterious pod he is said to use in between songs. No I’d wager money he walked off, floating on air and full of excitement. The kind of long overdue joy captured in the interview he gave Kurt Loder after the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards.
I only hope that if Axl Rose ever stumbled upon this particular blog post he’d thank me “for that Rio review” the way he did Loder. All the bumps aside, Axl Rose still knows how to bring a great show. Being able to see his soaring talents tonight just makes me wish the moments weren’t so few and far in between.