Singer Axl Rose, a future first-ballot Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, led a talented, large group of musicians calling itself Guns N’ Roses though a lengthy, career-spanning parade of hits, covers and solos on Saturday night at Hartford’s Comcast Theatre.
G N’ R is one of the few bands that scores points just for making it to the gig. Their appeal stretches across generations. Boomers graft them onto the extended hippie-era/mid-’70s arena-rock culture (which the band has always embraced happily). Gen-Xers, originally turned on by the quirks that made them stand out in a sea of generic late-'80s hair bands (their formative years), remain faithful to one of the few bands of their era worthy of classic-rock status, and Millennials are willing late-adopters.
Rose has been getting decent reviews on the current tour for the 2008 album Chinese Democracy, for his able singing, his ability to pull together some of his signature snake-like moves, and, well, for showing up. The good reviews aren’t entirely unfounded. But little of the explosiveness and unpredictability that made Rose such a great frontman in the past was noticeable in Hartford.
Folks in my section seemed prepared for a late start, hunkering down with enormous beers and snacks. By 10:30 p.m., after opener Sebastian Bach had already wrapped his set, the Axl-cursing began. (Booing G N’ R for tardiness is part of the experience, like hurling insults at Bob Dylan circa 1966 for plugging in his guitar: you know they’ll be late, but you show up ready to boo anyway.)
Once they got rolling, though, the trio of guitar-playing mercenaries in the Slash role -- Richard Fortus, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal and DJ Ashba -- mugged, posed, twirled, dodged fireworks, and played Slash’s signature lines when the crowd expected to hear them. On Slash-less Chinese Democracy tracks and short solo-showcases, they stretched out, doing unimaginable things with both hands on the fretboard. Rock critics and indie-pop minimalists -- even the pop marketplace, to some extent -- have heralded the death of guitar heroics for some time, but that message obviously didn’t resonate with G N’ R fans, who crave the power and flash of Led Zeppelin, the guitar-driven, mind-fuck conceptual framework of Pink Floyd, and the six-stringed anthems of the Who.
G N’ R didn’t let them down, exhuming all three groups, alongside Bon Scott-era AC/DC (who, like G N’ R balanced punk and thrum), Paul McCartney’s Wings ( “Live and Let Die”) and Dylan (the overworked “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” which should be put out to pasture, not just by Guns N’ Roses but by everyone). Bassist Tommy Stinson sang lead on “My Generation.” Pianist Dizzy Reed materialized on center stage to pound through “Baba O’Riley.” Bumblefoot and Fortus traded bits of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” (the whole band joined them) and Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” As a singer and rock personality, Rose seems poised to join the ranks of those groups, but he occupies an odd space. He's been called “the last of the great frontmen” (by guitarist Zakk Wylde) and “the greatest singer of all time” (in a musicradar.com poll). Slash even told Entertainment Weekly he thinks of Rose as worthy of being named alongside Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, even John Lennon (!).
But AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Pink Floyd: they were better bands, and they did more in a shorter period of time. It took G N’ R It took over 20 years to put out one rock masterpiece (Appetite for Destruction), one decent double-album (Use Your Illusion), another long-awaited, pretty good album (Chinese Democracy), and two glorified EPs (G N’ R Lies and The Spaghetti Incident?). That’s roughly twice the length of time as Led Zep’s full discography, Floyd’s run from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn to The Wall, the Who’s catalog from A Quick One to Who Are You, and AC/DC’s High Voltage through 1985’s Fly on the Wall (through two singers).
Then again, all of those G N' R albums, even the half-assed EPs, went platinum. Appetite tops out at over 18 million sales. Each half of Use Your Illusion has sold over 7 million records. The pace has slowed somewhat with Chinese Democracy. They've always been a band of the people, even if they chronically piss them off with no-shows, late appearances and one delayed album release.
There’s nothing dangerous or unforeseen in this current version of G N’ R, just a good review of rock songs you know, some you don’t, flashy stage pyrotechnics and a late drive home. The band rushed through mid-tempo crowd-pleasers “Sweet Child of Mine,” which took off from the start, and “November Rain,” which might have ended the show.
But heavy-lidded fans, like it or not, were treated to “Don’t Cry,” “Whole Lotta Rosie” (the night’s second AC/DC cover), “Out Ta Get Me,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Nightrain” before a four-song encore. I'm sure, for some, that’s wasn't enough, but for others, it was plenty.