Guns N’ Roses | Hammerstein Ballroom, New York City | 05.14.06

Even indiscretions like Richard Fortus and Robin Frinke’s nightly twin-guitar reinterpretation of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” were welcome, as they provided suggestion that Axl has finally licked the control issues that broke up the original band and postponed the new LP up to this point.

 

The legend of W. Axl Rose returned to New York last week for a string of rehearsal shows at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. After a four-year absence, the biggest rock star of our time seized the 3,500-seat venue with arena-ready stagecraft, replete with jumbo video screens, flash-pots, and show-ending confetti cannons. Now comes the $1 million question (or $12 million, if you’ve been funding Chinese Democracy): Was it any good? To that, the most honest answer might be: Does it matter? 

 Axl sounded great, far better than he did in 2002, and was able to rip that coda from “You Could Be Mine” through the entire two-hour set. He had energy to burn, a newfound theatricality, and an affable charm that captivated the all-too-willing crowd. On the other hand, this wasn’t necessarily the Axl you remember. The precious icon is gone; 2.0 doesn’t look like he used to, nor does he move like he used to. He still sprints the stage and hurls the boom-stand at the start of each new song, only now thgnr.jpge gestures seem a bit calculated, maybe even choreographed. And he smiles, a lot. So the modern Axl is happy to entertain us, grateful for our support, maybe even a touch sentimental—at the end of the night he dedicated the show to his mother. Is this the same man who wrote “It’s So Easy”?

As for the band, they were looser the last time around and still lack any sense of visual coherence. However, they showed an uncanny technical proficiency to the original lineup with high-octane renditions of “Live and Let Die,” “Mr. Brownstone,” “Nighttrain,” and “Rocket Queen.” The set drew mostly from Appetite for Destruction, along with four songs from Use Your Illusion and a handful of new ones. The new material may never find a place in the purist’s pantheon, but provided a welcomed sense of progress for the lost years. From the would-be title track with its serrated guitar riff and aggro-metal chorus to the alt-rock crunch of “Better,” the crowd was enthusiastic and surprisingly familiar with the material. “The Blues” sounds like a decent Illusion-era outtake, while the ballad “Madagascar” nearly touches the epic sweep of “November Rain.”

Axl spent plenty of time mugging with his new bandmates, showing a particular affinity for bassist Tommy Stinson. And when he curiously left the stage in the middle of each song, he gave the band ample space to stretch out. Even indiscretions like Richard Fortus and Robin Frinke’s nightly twin-guitar reinterpretation of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” were welcome, as they provided suggestion that Axl has finally licked the control issues that broke up the original band and postponed the new LP up to this point.

All said, the experience of seeing Guns invade New York provided a much-needed sense of hope amongst the diehards who’ve waited this long for a bone. That is, until the fourth and final night when original guitarist Izzy Stradlin turned up onstage. That got fans worked up about something they’ve really been waiting for over the years.

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