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Culture Reviews
Guns n' Roses
Adrenaline Stadium 
By Martin Richardson
Way back when, in the days when Axl Rose was a skinny, good looking kid with a dream, Guns n’ Roses was the hottest ticket in high school. And yet, when touring to the nearest venue to my home town (yep, heading for the rock-n-roll Valhalla that is Whitley Bay Ice Rink), the band taught me an early lesson in the perils of young love. One girl, two guys, and a gig 20 miles away. I had tickets but no car, the other guy had a car but no tickets. As a consequence I ended up financially enriched, but never got close to that particular sixth-form princess.

And so, for 20-odd years, I never got close to the GNR live experience either. So it was with some trepidation that I invited another lovely young lady (who, happily, has her own transport) to come along for the 25th anniversary show. Naturally, much has changed, but the band’s notoriously late starts remain. After an unprepossessing support act, and much scurrying around by the crew, 10 o’clock came around and the stage was deserted. Tick followed tock, and the mood switched from excited anticipation to exasperated irritation. A stray roadie was greeted by a forest of extended middle fingers and mutterings of “Axl g*vno” were getting louder and more persisent. Punctuality is hardly rock-n-roll, but considering half the crowd had good grounds to ruminate on whether a Slash-free band could really be billed as an authentic GNR gig, rather than a covers band doing a souped-up karaoke, indulging one’s notoriety for procrastination could be seen as a high-risk strategy. It’s not 1992 anymore, and not every rock star privilege stands the test of time so well.

Happily, it didn’t take long to get the crowd back onside. A theatrical entrance: guitarist DJ Ashaba silhouetted against the big screens, throwing shapes. A quick nod to the newer stuff, in the form of “Chinese Democracy”, gave Rose the chance to energetically get the measure of the hall, then it was straight into the old favorites with a raucous “Welcome to the Jungle”. In some respects, the years haven’t been too kind to Rose: a preposterously good-looking 20-something, he now wears a preposterous moustache instead. And while his voice is no worse than before, few would argue that he was a better vocalist than he had been a frontman. The singing is still OK, but the (admittedly limited) chat seems to have a whinier southern twang than ever before. The compensation is the sheer energy that he brings to the stage – a natural showman, in his element in front of the crowd, he remains compelling to watch. In terms of delivering the performance to the audience, he resembled Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, who put on one of the best performances of 2011 when he achieved the rare feat of making Olimpiisky feel like a venue and not an aircraft hangar.

However, while Rose remains a more engaging frontman than his 50 years might suggest is possible, the fact remains that this is no longer the GNR that thrilled the world in the early 90s. Only keyboard player Dizzy Reid remains from that line-up, and his solo brought a rapturous reception. For the others, Ashaba included, the mechanics were in place but somehow the spark was missing: the guitarist is clearly talented, but he’s no Slash, and apart from picking out the opening to “Sweet Child o’ Mine” he struggled to really set the crowd’s passions aflame. And that, perhaps was the flaw in the show. Apart from Rose and Reid, the band’s key members have moved on. Not just in the sense of leaving the band, but often in the sense of developing new projects and new material. For GNR, this is not the case. While the set draws heavily on 2008’s long-awaited “Chinese Democracy”, it’s telling to note that many of those tracks have existed in some form for over a decade. Four years on from that release, and no new songs on offer. It’s not a good sign for fans hoping to hear more from their heroes, although it’s a bonus for nostalgia junkies eager to lap up the old favorites one more time. The current crew does a good, reliable job with the music, and there’s no sense that this is a performance being listlessly phoned in to reluctantly secure another payday. At the same time, there’s no feeling that the band is still alive and active in any creative sense.

Perhaps that sense of a group being somewhat fossilized explains the slight awkwardness at times: interaction between band and audience was minimal. When a banner reached the stage, bearing a satirical reflection on the nature of Russian democracy, Rose seemed uncertain whether it was his most recent release or the Kremlin’s own heavily-rotated greatest hits collection that was the target of the barb. At the same time, the band seems to have less confidence in its new material: fair enough, the tour was billed as a celebration of the 25th anniversary of “Appetite for Destruction”, but there was little evidence of any appetite to create anew these days. While other acts of similar vintage – including, on the same weekend, Garbage – use the stage to put a strong case for their fans to regard them as an on-going project, the latest GNR incarnation feels like a tribute act to a great but now departed band.

Not, of course, that many of the faithful were complaining. A good solid two-hour set (running perilously close to the witching hour of metro closure) transformed those angry pre-show digits into wild enthusiasm. By midset, the strains of “Live and Let Die” transformed cries of abuse into “Axl – you’re the f*ckin’ best!” and a thunderous “Paradise City” to conclude sent everyone to their taxis happily enough – despite the earlier delays and frustration.

15.05.12
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