According to Wikipedia, Guns N’ Roses had never played Nashville before*. So the band’s performance at the Bridgestone Arena Sunday night was a first for both of us – Guns were one of those bands I always kind of wanted to see, but never had.
It’s not that I’m a huge fan – my taste in male lead vocalists runs a lot less “screechy,” and I never had much interest in Use Your Illusion or Chinese Democracy — it’s more that they were one of the very first bands to capture my imagination. They taught me about the danger, the swagger, and the eternal rush that is rock and roll.
I was thirteen when Appetite For Destruction came out. That album was like my rock and roll bar mitzvah, in that listening to it made me a man. Thankfully I never got on the “night train” to alcohol abuse and a life on the skids, as I know my mother worried about (I had to hide my copy from her – it was illegal contraband). But it did wise me up to a whole other world, a world of sex and danger and Slash-ian guitar solos.
Guns N’ Roses makes me think of summer carnivals hunting for girls, the heavy metal thunder ride that played hard rock hits, Seagram’s seven by the lake, stolen cigarettes, metal heads in my guitar class, iconic skull t-shirts, pilfered porn magazines, feathered hair and gin smuggled in hair spray bottles.
I remember clearly watching the video for “Paradise City” (the band’s third, after “Welcome To The Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine”) with my best friend and future band mate, watching the live crowd in the video whip themselves into a frenzy. It looked like the most fun in the world, and possibly, the scariest.
By the time we heard “Patience,” we vowed to form our own band (Time Machine) and make our acoustic guitars sound like that. We read in awe the Rolling Stone cover stories about their troubled origins and life on the road, the tales of broken homes and rock star excess. As the years went by, the Guns legend grew. Concert hijinks. Coming on late. Axl’s gone crazy. Chinese Democracy. I outgrew my early obsession with the hair metal bands of the day (sorry, Cinderella), and moved onto better things.
I never ended up in a proper band (Time Machine split up after one talent show), but I did end up a rock journalist, going to countless concerts. I even met Slash once, at a gig with Les Paul in a jazz club in New York, where he was charmingly nervous. But I’d never been anywhere quite like “Paradise City,” and I never saw a crowd lose their shit quite like that.
Johnny Cash once sang, don’t take your guns to town, son. Leave your guns at home. But Axl Rose wasn’t listening. Guns N’ Roses, or the latest mutation of it, were here in Nashvegas (“do you know where you are?”) to make up a gig they’d cancelled back in 2007 – some things never change. I felt lucky to even have a show, since they’d cancelled ones before and after it due to “production issues.” The original lineup was a thing of the past, and while even the acrimonious members of Pink Floyd had deemed it okay to reunite, Axl and Slash (and Izzy and Steven and Duff) had not.
In their place were people like DJ Ashba, Bumblefoot — a guitarist with a double neck guitar and a crazy neckbeard — a new, fat drummer, two keyboard players (hey Dizzy, how ya doin’?) and Tommy Stinson, the replacement from The Replacements. And Axl version 3.0 – looking better than the paparazzi had painted him, and dressed in leather instead of embarrassing yellow. Definitely the Las Vegas version of Guns n Roses. And despite a host of reviews casting aspersions on the entire enterprise, these hired Guns could rock. What a pleasant surprise.
The band got started around 11. Forget all that “show usually starts around seven, we go on stage around nine” talk. I’d come over from the Judy Collins/Arlo Guthrie show across the street at the Ryman – a more bizarre opening act, you couldn’t hope for. When I got to the arena, Zakk Wylde was doing his thing. Okay, still not interested. Then there was the interminable wait for Axl to arrive, in which you could see people (many clad in the same shirts I remembered from school) starting to get drowsy, their fourth beer and too much tinnitus weighing them down.
Then the opening chords of “Chinese Democracy,” which lasted just long enough to adjust your eyes to the new band, and to check out the evolution of Rose’s slithering stage moves. Then, that familiar, menacing riff, and the serpentine scream – YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE? YOU IN THE JUNGLE BABY. YOU GONNA DIE!!!!! Oh, yeah. This was going to be fun.
The problem with the current G N R show is, it’s half filler, half killer. I’m pretty sure Axl knows this, and just doesn’t care. If he did, he would take out the nine instrumental interludes/bathroom breaks, and maybe the cover of “Sonic Reducer,” sung capably but quixotically by Tommy Stinson while Axl presumably checks his e-mail. The show runs about three hours long, but not the Bruce Springsteen kind of three hours that results in dozens of your favorite songs being performed. It’s the kind of three hours that makes room for Rose to sing “Another Brick In The Wall” at the piano. Which by the way, sounds really f’n cool.
I said “check his e-mail” because I don’t believe Axl is doing shots every time he leaves the stage, which is often. These guys seem as sober as Steven Adler on the last day of Celebrity Rehab, and Rose, once known for attacking his fans and security for pissing him off, seems oddly polite these days. “I’d like to thank you all for coming out tonight,” he tells the withering crowd, who will dwindle in numbers once the clock strikes midnight. He introduces the members of the band like he doesn’t secretly hate them, and his temper never seems on the verge of flaring.
And seeing them perform, you can understand why he’d rather play with these guys than his ex-bandmates, who he burned his bridges with long ago. The new guys are not just instrumental wizards, they’re enthusiastic showmen. At one point, DJ Ashba, who loves to straddle the railings on either side of the stage, sprinted all the way up the arena steps to the top of my section, peeling off a guitar solo right in front of me. His tributes to Slash (mini-top hat, smoking cigarettes on stage) are more endearing than off-putting, and he can pull off the same parts without much of an audible difference.
For the vintage Guns fan, they offered “Civil War” (during which a confederate flag was hoisted in the crowd), “Mr. Brownstone,” “Rocket Queen,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “November Rain,” “Nighttrain,” “Don’t Cry,” and the non-album tracks, but still essential part of their videography, “Live And Let Die” and “You Could Be Mine.” There was the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” which really does sound better with Axl’s trademark moaning. Then there were a scattering of Chinese Democracy tracks, which sound like weird metal-meets-broadway-musical hybrids, and a couple of AC/DC covers.
That left two songs that had to be heard, the ones they always save for the encore. “Patience” was one. That was pretty good, but the electric guitar drowned out the acoustics, and where was the whistling solo? And the grand finale — “Paradise City,” with accompanying pyro and confetti cannons. The big f’n moment. The culmination of many years of listening to rock music and going to concerts. So how was it? The grass may not have been as green, but if definitely felt like coming home.
(Photos: Jamie Goodsell)
* Correction: A reader writes, “um, that is not true…..I saw Guns N’ Roses open up for Aerosmith on September 2, 1988 at Starwood Amphitheater……I’ll post a pic of my ticket stub to prove it….. they blew Aerosmith off the stage…..!!!!!