Axl Rose aims to please. This may sound surprising after decades of rumor and Behind the Music testimony, but he was on his best behavior at the Forum last night. Rose led his contemporary version of Guns 'N Roses through exactly three hours of intense melody and noise, adding up to nearly three-dozen songs and lengthy instrumental interludes.
A little less might have meant a little more, but no one could say the man wasn't working hard to deliver everything he had by the time the show finally ended at 2 a.m.
It began with the grinding, churning metal riff of “Chinese Democracy,” a reminder that the band continues to tour behind the 2008 album of the same name which — completed after 15 years and millions of Geffen dollars — is still the only new music to come from GN'R this millennium. But soon Rose was shrieking “Do you know where you are?” to the stuttering guitar of DJ Ashba, re-enacting the stormy sounds of “Welcome to the Jungle.”
The tune still sounded great, as did all the old GNR classics, delivered with all the fire and finesse of the originals. The current band isn't quite the motley gathering of gifted if ill-fitting players (remember Buckethead?) that debuted onstage in Las Vegas a decade ago. They were a cohesive unit of ace players and performed the old songs as well as they'd ever been played. “Civil War” was an epic from the band's middle-years, beginning with the sampled Strother Martin dialogue from Cool Hand Luke against a sound spooky and atmospheric as Rose whistled and wailed into the microphone.
But as close as the current band might be behind the scenes at this point, onstage they were clearly sidemen to the guy up front. Rose and GN'R can still fill a big room, but the original band's staggering legacy is something he works to embrace and to overcome. Speaking with Randall Roberts of the LA Times, Rose actually sounded open to the idea of a short reunion with the original GN'R at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next year.
For the youngest fans (and there were many), the absence of guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin at the Forum was no more distressing than the absence of Brian Jones. Chinese Democracy has its own constituency, and Rose's three current guitarists were equally adept at lead and rhythm, each taking many, many big solos.
Each solo also gave Rose time for frequent wardrobe changes, though nothing varied from his basic ensemble of jeans, jacket, wide-brimmed hat, handlebar mustache and shades, the end result much like Harvey Keitel as the pimp in Taxi Driver. He did no cartwheels or karate kicks, but was energetic and in solid shape, despite endless speculation about his weight in recent years. Get over it; Appetite for Destruction was 24 years ago, and no one else of Rose's generation looks now like they did in their mid-20s (with the possible exception of Prince). What mattered was his voice, which was as powerful as ever.
At times, the material was beside the point, with much of the night spent on a series of unexpected covers – from the Bond theme that led into their version of Paul McCartney's “Live and Let Die” to the bits and pieces of Pink Floyd, Elton John, and Henry Mancini's “Pink Panther Theme.” The choices were sometimes random and strange. All of it was skillfully and movingly played — never just noodling — but was also too much of a good thing.
Keyboardist Dizzy Reed, the only player onstage who also toured with the original lineup, performed an instrumental “Baba O'Riley” on grand piano, but Rose unfortunately never joined him for the Who classic, which was a lost opportunity. The singer might have done something interesting with the song and made it his own. (It couldn't be worse than Fred Durst's “Behind Blue Eyes.”)
From Chinese Democracy, “Sorry” was a thundering ballad with big solos and video of a young woman contemplating a suicide jump, as Rose wagged a finger and declared, “Nobody owes you one goddamn thing!” That was followed by the industrial-strength “Shackler's Revenge.” Not all of the newest material worked so well. Some songs worked in spots — an awesome riff or beat here or there — but didn't always fall together into a satisfying whole.
The night's openers reflected Rose's competing impulses, from the postmodern beats and mixing of the Crystal Method to the hair metal parody act Steel Panther, an echo from the Sunset Strip scene that birthed GN'R in the '80s. Dressed in spandex, ripped T-shirts and headbands to hold on their wigs, the Panther dudes stood like four clueless incarnations of Bret Michaels.
“A lot of these kids need to know about hair metal and how much pussy you can get doing hair metal,” declared the guitarist called Satchel. To a simple piano melody, singer Michael Starr purred, “Spread your cheeks and swallow your pride . . . it's a weenie ride,” in the tradition of Spinal Tap's immortal “Lick My Love Pump.”
Crystal Method's remix of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” may have been a bit impolitic, considering how the arrival of Kurt and Nirvana meant the end of the hair metal scene, but no one seemed to notice.
Those competing impulses were just as evident onstage during GN'R's set. Like Motley Crue, Axl Rose is a rare survivor of that ancient Los Angeles metal scene, still filling arenas and commanding attention through music and ongoing dissension. His conundrum is knowing how to do stay true to the band's history while somehow taking it forward. Last night at the Forum, Rose didn't falter for a moment. He showed up and delivered.
Set list below.
“Welcome To The Jungle”
“It's So Easy”
“Live and Let Die”
“This I Love”
“Street Of Dreams”
“You Could Be Mine”
“Ballad of Death”
“Sweet Child O' Mine”
“Another Brick In The Wall: Part 2”
“Pink Panther Theme”
“Whole Lotta Rosie”
“Knockin' On Heaven's Door”