During the onslaught of promotion for Guns N' Roses 12-date run at The Joint, members liked to say the band would be doing things it hadn't done before. I've only seen GNR once before, but the show I saw then, and the "Appetite For Democracy" show I saw last night were awfully alike. Sure, there was more apparatus (drawbridge ramps on either side of the stage), more lights and cannons and pyro, more band members (he's supported by seven musicians, three of them guitarists) and more covers.
But the GNR concert experience remained the same, which is to say overlong, lacking unique, take-away moments, and never transcending the conservative template of a hard rock show. The "Appetite for Democracy" extravaganza likely gave fans of that genre and the band itself everything it wanted. But for anyone else — still a valuable demographic for a casino residency show — it's a well-executed show that nonetheless suffers from overkill and dull spots. (Is there anything worse than band-member solos? Does Axl Rose really need to change his outfit every three songs, a la Cher?)
I expect more of Guns N Roses because it's the best among the hard rock bands that emerged from and ruled the 1980s. It had ambition when the others degenerated toward parody, its musicians boasted better chops, and it wrote better songs. Though I've heard it way too many times to enjoy it anymore, Appetite For Desctruction is a landmark 1980s rock record, the most raw and tuneful collection of songs that emerged from the Sunset Strip. However, GNR — and specificially Rose — turned ambition into bloat, just when the band was imploding, and it lost the momentum of whatever artistic creativity it had. When Rose (and a new crew of musicians) finally re-emerged from the studio, 2008's Chinese Democracy revealed itself to be a kitchen-sink stinker that overwhelmed whatever songs lie underneath its production overload.
About five songs from that album made its way onto last night's massive setlist, which nonetheless — and mercifully — favored songs from the GNR golden era. Half of those performances were among the night's best, including "Mr. Brownstone," "I Used to Love Her," "Out Ta Get Me" and "Rocket Queen." But Rose clipped the phrases and seemed out of breath too often during post-opener "Welcome to the Jungle" and closer "Paradise City." Even worse, he began the first verse of "Sweet Child O' Mine" with what's actually the second verse, and when he went to actually sing the first verse during the second-verse slot, he acknowledged he flat-out forgot the lines. For a song he's likely played at every concert since 1987, and one so many people cherish, that's a monumental embarrassment.
That's the extent of my complaints with Rose's performance. The man proved resilient last night, powering through three hours and still largely hitting the higher notes at the end. He ran from one end of that mammoth stage to the other like a second grader letting off steam after school. He handled piano duties with notable dexterity during "November Rain" (which had Rose and his Vegas-themed Baldwin hoisted above the general-admission crowd). And he was all powerhouse during "You Could Be Mine"; no matter what else the other musicians did, your eyes were glued to Rose, thanks to the sheer force of his performance.
Props to Rose's band, no longer a crack group of musicians enabling its leader, and sounding very much like the established and cohesive crew Rose has been touting in interviews. Especially impressive was guitarist DJ Ashba, who not only mastered his parts and did his best to fill in the large shoes left behind by Slash, but showed genuine stage presence. Bassist Tommy Stinson was in lock-step with beast-of-a-drummer Frank Ferrer, and the former's "Motivation" was the best of the Axl time-out/wardrobe change moments.
Rounding out the setlist were covers that mostly disappointed. "Another Brick in the Wall Part. 2" should ony be played by those who are adding something to that arena-rock giant, and GNR failed that test. AC/DC's "Riff Raff" was ho-hum. Ditto Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down," which might have been directed to someone like me, for whom the cover — and most of the concert, for that matter — failed to resonate.