30.1.16

'Warm-Up Show' for Guns N' Roses

By BEN RATLIFF
Published: May 13, 2006

Rock and roll audiences want to identify with the guy singing the song; they need to, in fact. But you’d be hard-pressed to prove that the crowd at the Hammerstein Ballroom on Friday night was identifying with W. Axl Rose. What does he represent, at this stage of the game? Survival? Re-invention? Creative control? The tortured artist? The persistence of the yowl? If the spirit of his age resides in him, his long postponement of an infamous album has diluted that spirit somewhat.

But if the physical reality of Mr. Rose - dressed L.A. style in a leather shirt and jeans and wearing a large silver cross, his hair corn-rowed and pulled back - wasn’t an easy figure to identify with, his voice and body language did the job instead. When he sang “Paradise City,” the crowd adopted a yowl in kind; when he danced in his undulating movements, like the letter S turning itself inside out, the men and women in the audience involuntarily moved that way too.

Friday night’s concert was the first of four Guns N’ Roses shows at Hammerstein Ballroom. On stage, Mr. Rose called them “warm-up shows” for the band’s European tour, which begins May 25 in Madrid. It’s fair to assume that the large-theater shows will have clearer sound and more effective stagecraft; Mr. Rose’s voice sounded strong, even in his highest nasal shrieks, but the band wasn’t using the warm-up time to experiment. The set list of the two-hours-plus show, complete with flash pots and confetti, came pretty close to what an only slightly different version of the band was playing four years ago, on its last tour.

Mr. Rose is the only original member left in the quintessential ‘80s hard-rock band, and this has been the case since 1997. The newest of the seven musicians backing up Mr. Rose on Friday, one of its three guitarists, is Ron Thal, also known as Bumblefoot. (One of his guitars has been designed to look like the bottom of a foot, with bumblebee stripes.) He takes up the role of the pyrotechnic shredder, vacated in 2004 by the guitarist Buckethead. At certain points in the show, including a few discontinuous unaccompanied solos, he accelerated to impressively fast chromatic runs; he also played some lavish, Hendrix-influenced blues language. Why this band’s gut-level songs now require the ornamentation of a wizardly guitarist at all remains unclear. It makes the band more atemporal, more Vegas-y, than necessary.

It was the group’s principal guitarist, Robin Finck, who made the sweetest and most grounded music of the night, and seemed most comfortable at work. An off-and-on member of the band for nine years now, Mr. Finck assumed most of the lines in the old songs formerly played by the guitarist Slash. But when he improvised, he spun out simple patterns, shaking the guitar’s neck and getting warmth and resonance out of each note or chord; his own unaccompanied solo, just before the concert’s final number, was a beautifully coherent, non-shredding couple of minutes, the best of the less-familiar music played in the show. He gave himself to the crowd, even literally, diving in to the audience three times.

The less-familiar songs were, actually, kind of familiar. That infamous, postponed Guns N’ Roses album, of course, is “Chinese Democracy,” which has been in the making for much of the last decade, and still has not been scheduled for release. Some of its songs included in the concert—“The Blues,” “Better,” “Madagascar,” “Chinese Democracy,” “There Was a Time,” and “IRS”—are easy enough to find on the internet, in leaked demos and bootlegged live performances. And in the concert, the new songs distinguished themselves visually as well as sonically, with serious-looking video backdrops: stained-glass details, religious portraiture, Martin Luther King speeches.

The crowd didn’t go nuts for them. Most of the new songs are dystopian, tense, portentous, finally a bit inconclusive; they dabble in electronic rhythms, big keyboard sounds and droning repetition. They didn’t produce much catharsis, on stage or in the audience. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and “Patience,” on the other hand, were among the set’s old songs that motored along on earthy, meaty riffs, and provoked the fully expected but still astonishing spectacle of a full house roaring along with every word.

Guns N’ Roses continue at Hammerstein Ballroom on May 15 and 17.


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