By the third night of Guns N’ Roses’ four-night stint at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom the word is out: Axl is actually in the city, does show up at the venue and is physically and mentally capable of getting through two-and-a-half sweaty hours of gloriously overblown Sunset Strip-style American rock’n’roll. Anyone who didn’t get tickets, has to brave apocalyptic rivers of rain to beg for touts’ mercy outside the venue as hyped Welsh rockers Bullet For My Valentine play their opening set inside.
Axl and company let the Hammerstein fill way past capacity while warming up the mix of executive-type grown-ups and preppy frat guys in backwards baseball caps, with a collection of classic rock tunes (AC/DC into Led Zeppelin into Rush). Promptly, at 11 o’clock, the lights dim and the excess begins. Axl takes the stage dressed in elegantly worn, loose-fitting jeans, a leather button-down shirt and a giant silver cross that shows off his suspiciously smooth white-boy chest. The bad news is that Axl still thinks cornrows and ginger-coloured facial hair is a good look; the good news is that he seems to have stopped botoxing the shit out of his face, and the best news is that Axl totally puts out, playing ‘Welcome To The Jungle’, ‘Mr Brownstone’, ‘Live And Let Die’ and ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’. Rumour has it that on the first night, the band performed a substantial amount of new material off the ever-imminent ‘Chinese Democracy’ album, but Axl (who seems to acknowledge that he needs to pay dues before he gets to force-feed the new stuff) changed the set list to include songs NME actually want to hear. The remaining newer material (‘The Blues’, ‘There Was A Time’ and ‘Madagascar’ among other inclusions) is coherently worked into the rest of the set.
Axl has assembled a retardedly-talented group of musicians to help sell his comeback, including mesmerizing principle guitarist Robin Finck (formerly of NIN), who is about seven feet tall and dresses like a goth jockey in white jodhpurs and a black and white mariachi vest. Other noteworthy guests include a disturbingly spry Sebastian Bach from Skid Row, who joins the band for
‘My Michelle’. NME has absolutely no idea why he’s here, but he’s wearing a Ramones T-shirt and it’s awesome.
As amazing as it is to hear set-closer ‘Paradise City’ played live amid clouds of yellow and pink confetti, it’s the quieter moments throughout the night that resonate the most. Seeing Axl nervously sit at his piano and pound out the opening notes to ‘November Rain’ behind a wall of floor-to-ceiling sparklers, it’s hard not to marvel at the long-lost power of the rock ballad. This generation of art-school punks may have the Gang Of Four riff down, but the potency of the badass rocker wailing his heart out for a girl is totally unparalleled. In many ways the current version of Guns N’ Roses is a pastiche, a cheap approximation of the original, with every swivel of Axl’s hips and every would-be Slash solo trying valiantly to measure up to the originals we all secretly love, but frankly the songs are so epic and transcendent and undeniable that it doesn’t matter.