Guns N Roses At Metlife, Sunday, July 24th, 2016, Reviewed
At Metlife on Sunday night, Axl Rose had a glint in his eyes, that, when pulsated out on huge LCD screens to an adoring audience, on a warm sweet summer evening with a manic band rocking triumphantly through the stadium, the glint seemed to belie the greatness of his performance, with a chemical wildness. If Guns N Roses, the 80s hard rock poster boys for hair metal and much more, had lost their threat, Axl had managed to maintain it. He had become greater, and also stranger.
As Prince rode one half of the 1980s, and Bruce rode the other, Guns N Roses strode through the middle, with only one really great album to their name, Appetite For Destruction, and well on their way to self-destruction before they got half way home, Axl was damaged goods poster boy for indigent rentboy runaways on the streets of Hollywood offering handjobs to middle aged married VPs of insurance agencies from Des Moines there for the annual sales meeting.
He looked the part, gorgeous beyond reason and crazy beyond belief, as became clearer when his life story slowly emerged. He was ill tempered and temperamental, anchored by his guitarist Slash -the bi-racial top hatted, heavy fingered lead guitarist and bassist Duff McKagan, a blonde beauty pro. Rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin and drummer Steven Adler completed the band as they drove their loud and heavy guitar riffs and Axl’s high pitched rangy voice, plus songs that seemed like business as usual but also, Axl was too weird, were more than that, there was also something else about them, GNR were standard bearers for grunge. Axl was too upset, too paranoid, too hurt, to be, I dunno, Nikki Sixx. Guns N Roses were bigger not just because they were bigger but also because they were better, you could feel the depths of their post-teen angst going further than stylistic take no prisoners Whiskey-A-Go-Go.
And in 1996 it was absolutely over, and they were never going back again. Axl became the monstrous and sad man physically he had always been mentally, all bandana and face lifts, and the rest of the band just couldn’t get it sorted out. No band anyway of them formed, not even Slash and Duff’s Velvet Revolver, with the late Scott Weiland taking over lead vocals, was worth a damn. Axl did best, though it took him fifteen years his follow up to the covers album The Spaghetti Incident?, when he did, 2008’s Chinese Democracy, was one of the best of the year, mixed reviews notwithstanding. I caught GNR in 2005, a very good incarnation where my girl at the time, pushed me through Hammerstein Ballroom to the front of the stage and Axl was really quite brilliant.
He was brilliant last night as well. GNR Mach V (?), with Duff and mostly Slash back, three quarters of the original line up, returned. Despite Duff’s fine “New Rose” and Slash’s prophetic “Speak Softly Love” instrumental, they basked in the shadow of the insane and crazed, energetic inclined, half cocked, fully loaded speed based delivery of a mix of GNR and hard rock classics, Rose. The entire night reached a height as great as I ever hope to hear at any concert. They’d been playing for nearly two hours, tireless, concentrated, powerful songs from all points of their career. An early ramrod from “Mr. Brownstone” thru “Chinese Democracy” back to “Welcome To The Jungle” was a head snapping back to the future joy, and while it would be silly to claim their had been any dip in quality, they’d still been leading to Axl behind a piano with his bassist and guitarist on either side, performing “November Rain”. “November Rain” is a great GNR song that is not quite seen as such, and will be seen as such by the end of this tour: a majestic power ballad, nearly the equal of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, it is begging to be resurrected by some smart pop guy, Bieber should sic Skrillex and Diplo on it though he probably won’t. Yes, that good. But there was better the very next song. I’d seen 22 sets over the weekend, and the only thing I heard that came close to the version of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” last night was Anderson Paak’s “Come Down”. Look, only one person owns “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and that is Warren Zevon, nobody else should be allowed to even look at it. But, it was late, near midnight, and Metlife was bursting with energy, it was warm not hot and there was a gentle breeze. It’s like, if you’ve been to Metlife during a ball game in winter, you know how the wind wraps itself around the stadium and freezes you like iceberg New Jersey, well, it was the kid sister of the same wind and instead of freezing you, it cooled you down. The stadium wasn’t sold out, and I was alone to the side, and Axl and Slash and the audience traded off on “Heaven’s Door”, Slash played the lick, improvising a little, then Axl rattled and pushed his voice, and then we answered, on and on and on. Axl said, “We could do this forever”, and I can think of worse ways to spend eternity. It transcended the moment and it transcended the song. “Open, open, open please” as Warren put it.
Clear sailing from there to the end of the show and what is clear is that Guns N Roses are superb Stadium rockers, they have the material and they also have the bottle, I haven’t mentioned Lenny Kravitz’s opening performance because I have nothing much to add to what you know (he is living proof Sly Stone is a genius), but his limitations as a stadium performer were very clear, while the audience might have appreciated him, the set had no center of gravity, it was jam but jamming to nothing. Most (not all) of the jamming by Slash and second guitarist Richard Fortus, trading off solos on “Wish You Were Here”, was tight albeit overlong. There was the flow and tick tock to the concert, the best sets tend to have. It knew where it was going. Nostalgia yes, but perfectly crafted nostalgia. It was the sort of nostalgia that confirmed that you were right to love them in the first place.
As for Axl, he is the epitome of a rock star, his youth reads like the backstory to a Stephen King villain. Axl believed his stepfather, who physically abused him and molested his sister, was his real father. By the time he discovered the truth, his real father was already dead, a murder victim. These are the sort of things that fuck you up for life, and Axl is a complete fucking mess, whether beating his ex-wife, Don Everly’s daughter Erin, or getting hooked on… well, everything, treating everybody like shit, breaking up the band, recording a follow up album for fifteen years, and destroying his beauty (it is self-mutilation, could he not take it anymore?) he drove himself insane. A couple of years ago the Village Voice followed Axl around the city and catalogued his hard, non stop drug taking, sleepless partying for SIX DAYS: Lemmy would’ve been proud. Sunday night at Metlife, Axl, eyes dilated from what I assume was amphetamines, was running for his life, he didn’t walk anywhere, when he wanted to get out of the way for a solo, he moonsped backwards, when he returned, he ran forward, he didn’t stop, using every inch of the huge stage. If the man wasn’t already a superstar, it would’ve been a superstar performance: it validated insanity through art. “I’m not complaining, not at all” Rose said, discussing the weather, but he meant everything at once.