Suppose, for a moment, that Axl Rose decided to put the past behind him. Say, for instance, he admitted that the band currently backing him -- a very fine one -- was not in truth the group with which he'd immediately and permanently cemented his reputation as one of hard rock's most compelling frontmen. And that the new music's he's been coming up with -- some of it weirdly compelling in its juxtaposition of elements from a variety of disparate genres -- might actually be hindered by its association with an old brand name.
Suppose, in other words, that the band Rose fronted on Friday night at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom had been called, say, Chinese Democracy? It's a good name, a memorable clash of words laden with symbolic weight. But it would also signify that for all Guns N' Roses might have been a communal effort during its heyday, the current band is essentially Rose and a changeable committee of skilled assistants.
That's not to suggest that Axl and his hirelings didn't stir up a righteous arena-rock din on Friday night. From the opening bars of "Welcome to the Jungle" -- and the massive explosion that greeted the first verse -- the show packed a nostalgic rush as long as it stuck to tested and true material. Rose slithered and shimmied like it was 1989, and the way he raced around the massive, two-tier stage suggested that he'd overcome whatever torpor had reportedly marred an earlier return engagement in 2002. (See Jon Pareles's fine New York Times review of that event, here.)
The Guns Rose brandished -- guitarists Robin Finck, Ron Thal and Richard Fortus, keyboardists Dizzy Reed and Chris Pittman, bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Brian "Brain" Mantia -- delivered the band's classics exactingly, although only Finck, Stinson and Mantia managed to exert their own stage personalities while performing songs originally created by other hands. Thal -- a New Yorker also known as Bumblefoot, who replaced another guitarist with an unlikely name, Buckethead -- offered a virtuosic unaccompanied solo midway through the set, which started with Van Halen-style finger-tapping before moving into lazy blues strums and virtuosic flamenco flourishes. All of this was undeniably exciting, and none of it seemed to have much to do with anything Guns N' Roses had performed in the past.
Clad in a loose leather shirt, tight jeans and boots, hair in tight cornrows and forehead preternaturally sleek even when viewed from the distant mezzanine, Rose looked the part of a rock icon for the ages more than he had in the oversize sports jerseys he sported four years ago. That he was also in excellent voice was something I mostly had to take on faith; the sound was muffled in the hooded mezzanine, and hundreds of voices sang along during the band's familiar numbers. Two women who made it upstairs from the floor late in the show -- a not unimpressive accomplishment, given the tight security at the venue -- reported that Rose sounded great downstairs.
After front-loading the set with "Welcome to the Jungle," "It's So Easy" and "Mr. Brownstone," Rose and his band played "Better," the first of the evening's new songs. As Ben Ratliff reported in his New York Times review of the Friday night show, none of these new songs are difficult to find on the Internet. Truth be told, these strange new numbers -- baroque constructions with trip-hop loops, sampled Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches and bombastic arrangements that wouldn't be out of place on albums by Elton John or Queen -- held up much better in a live setting than those weedy-sounding leaked demos and live boots had suggested they might.
I kept tabs on the body language of a quartet of diehards in the row in front of me. During older songs, they sang out loud, their grinding dance moves very nearly approaching something you don't normally see in public. But during "Madagascar," the second and most portentious of the new songs, one continued to sway haltingly, while the rest fell motionless. "The Blues" was better received, inasmuch as the piano-driven ballad could be mistaken for the oversize emotionalism of "November Rain" -- which came two songs later, accompanied by an impressive shower of sparks from the ceiling. Lines for the bathrooms grew longer even during "Chinese Democracy," the thundering new song that most resembles the classic Guns N' Roses sound.
It was the following number, "There Was a Time," that suggested a potential second act for Axl Rose. Like "Better," this song is also built on a relaxed electronic pulse, and features one of his more impressive new lyrics, as well. So long as Rose can refrain from referring to it by its impolite titular acronym (by which one friendly nearby fan called it every time he closed in for conversation), this song intimates that Rose's next Guns N' Roses record, the absurdly delayed Chinese Democracy, will actually prove worth hearing.
Still, Rose's former bandmates Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum have found success under a new name, Velvet Revolver. And even if much of that group's material suggests a slightly uneasy wedding of glam and grunge thank to frontman Scott Weiland, late of Stone Temple Pilots, its first New York show back in 2004 offered a much more substantial group identity than what was on offer Friday night -- and included a few classic Guns N' Roses songs "covered" authoritatively in the process. (An excellent Times review of that concert, by the far less convinced Pareles, can be found here.)
What if Rose took up the same tactic? Could he still command arena-size crowds on his own merits, were he to come out with a new band that also happened to play classic Guns N' Roses material complete with massive live-video screens, flashpots and billowing towers of flame? Based on Friday night's performance, I actually believe he could. (And there was no doubt that the GN'R fans turned out in full force for Velvet Revolver, including a clutch of hulking mooks who shoved their way through the crowd to the front of the stage, solemnly intoning that they had to get closer to "The Curls" -- a reference to Slash's trademark mane.)
But I have to imagine that Rose might be concerned that this wouldn't be the case. How else to explain his reluctance to part with a classic band name, when confronted with overwhelming evidence that he's more than willing to depart from the equally classic sound with which the name is associated?
The opening band, young Welsh metallists Bullet for My Valentine, is huge in Europe, where it will soon be supporting a Metallica tour, but hasn't yet made an impact here. Faced with a crowd of voracious GN'R fans who weren't exactly spoiling for new sounds, the group plowed through a nicely paced 50-minute set, in which its impressive musicianship, complete with finely tooled melodies and harmonies, could just be made out in Hammerstein's cavernous acoustics. Heard in a small club, this would surely have been a winning set, and praise is due to a quartet of lanky 20-somethings willing to take the stage while a hungry audience that arrived already knowing just what it wanted grew ever more ravenous.
Brian Eno and David Byrne - My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Nonesuch expanded edition)
Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Arc/Weld (Reprise)
Velvet Revolver - Contraband (RCA)
Guns N' Roses - "Oh My God" (from the motion picture End of Days, via iTunes)