The O2, Dublin, May 17
It’s 10.20pm and there’s a sense of déjà-vu. Guns N’ Roses are over an hour-and-a-half late… again. Wind back 19 months to September 2010 and this same venue was the scene of an Axl Rose-induced near-riot after he kept the crowd waiting for 90 minutes. By the time he took to the stage that time, booing competed with the fierce opening riff of ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ and intensified as showers of plastic bottles rained down on the stage. Axl stormed off, only to return over an hour later after the gig promoters reportedly physically prevented him from leaving the building. The show eventually went on until 2am, but only after half the 14,000-strong crowd had beaten Rose to the exit. But that was then; this is now.
Tonight, the feeling that Rose has a point to prove to his long-suffering Irish fans offsets the usual sense of trepidation. Surely he won’t sow the seeds for further chaos? But then again, this is a man with an insatiable appetite for destruction whose latest gripe is a leg injury suffered while dancing on a table in Moscow the weekend before. If anything, he’s predictably unpredictable.
So at 10.25pm, at exactly the same stage time as their infamous 2010 set, GNR’s latest lead guitarist DJ Ashba leaps aboard a platform behind Frank Ferrer’s drumkit and cranks out the opening riff to ‘Chinese Democracy’ as a stream of pyrotechnics light up Rose’s arrival. Dressed in a cowboy hat, ripped jeans and a tight-fitted leather jacket, the frontman sprints confrontationally towards the front row as he screams out in his trademark, piercing wail. Met with a polite, though not raucous, response, it’s only when the jittery opening riff to ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ is punched out that The O2 really cranks into action, with mosh pits beginning to circle. Sweat, rather than plastic bottles, flies through the air.
Vocally, Rose has clearly brought his A-game as he rips through volatile versions of ‘It’s So Easy’ and ‘Mr Brownstone’. At intervals throughout both, he dashes off to a mysterious tent left of the stage when Ashba or fellow guitarists Bumblefoot and Richard Fortus crank out a solo or an extended instrumental. This becomes a feature of the night, with the tent holding an oxygen humidifier system to help open out Rose’s lungs and an internal microphone to let him bark his orders to the band even while offstage.
Axl’s frequent disappearances also trigger the most tedious and cringe-inducing moments of the night. We get guitar solos… lots of guitar solos. Each time Axl introduces a bandmember and darts off stage, any pumped-up atmosphere triggered by stunning versions of ‘You Could Be Mine’, ‘Live And Let Die’, ‘Rocket Queen’ and ‘Nightrain’ is obliterated by a horrendous four-minute wail. They include Bumblefoot’s bizarre turn at ‘The Pink Panther Theme’, a nod to ‘Hello’ by Lionel Richie and an awful piano-led version of The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ from keyboardist Dizzy Reed. This is supposed to be Guns N’ fuckin’ Roses, not a hotel foyer covers band.
Thank the guitar gods, however, for Rose’s back catalogue. The venue curfew is well and truly smashed as GNR knock out thunderous versions of ‘November Rain’, ‘Don’t Cry’ and ‘Estranged’ well past midnight. Classics such as ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ soar, although drummer Frank Ferrer lacks the groove Steven Adler brought to the original. It’s at these moments when Rose’s lack of assistance becomes as audible as it is noticeable. On ‘Civil War,’ try as he might, Ashba can’t replicate that scuzzy soul Slash once provided, while set closer ‘Paradise City’ sees the original sense of low-class, ‘give a fuck’ sleaze substituted for plain old frantic pacing.
As Rose thanks the audience for “not throwing shit” and takes his bow at 1.20am, Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ rings out. No apologies, no regrets. Guns N’ Roses still rock – even if there’s a little something missing.