Nothing lasts forever in the cold November rain, but on a chilly March night at Los Angeles' Wiltern Theater (capacity: 2,200), 50-year-oldÂ Axl RoseÂ proved that Guns Nâ Roses might last until heâs 100. During a 30-song set, the frontman sang the bejesus out of all the hits, accompanied by the audience (especially on âKnockinâ on Heavenâs Doorâ) and his band du jour: longtime GNR keyboardist Dizzy Reed,Â relatively newish guitarists DJ Ashba, Richard Fortus and Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, bassist Tommy Stinson, drummer Frank Ferrer and keyboardist Chris Pitman. All of them were on a musical par with Rose, or better (though wobbly-pitched Stinson should maybe leave the vocals to his boss).
Of course, time has slightly tamed Roseâs chandelier-shattering growls and howls, but a lion in winter remains a lion whose baritone made my plastic water bottle resonate with audible sympathetic vibrations. On tune after beautiful tune, he screamed almost entirely on key, hit the highs, pointedly and prettily sustained long notes on âRocket Queenâ and âSorry.â In delicate, rather feminine gestures, his right hand interpreted the songs (helpful for those half-deafened by GNR). He ended âSorryâ by placing a dainty hand to his chest, then making a fist, then gazing down movingly on the last syllable. Sometimes he waggled and waved his fingers like Al Jolson.
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He was an entertainer so charming, youâd never know he had the reputation of an asshole. Itâs almost like Rose's appetite for destruction became an appetite for audience seduction. âNovember Rain,â âPatience,â and âSweet Child oâ Mineâ were never sweeter, and he sang âI used to love her, but I had to kill herâ with way more love than murder in his heart. That's not to say it was all the softer side of Sears. In most of the three-hour-or-so show, Rose snarled expertly, be it on âWelcome to the Jungle,â âParadise Cityâ or just about every song youâd expect.
But even the raw moments had an autumnal feel of emotion recollected in tranquility. Roseâs urgent need to kill her, it seems, is no longer a present danger. He seemed as fond of his old hatreds as the audience was -- blissed-out with reminiscence. The most telling moments were the radiant ones, like his exquisite vibrato as he sang, âShe wouldnât say goodbye, it just might be that I had seen it in her eyes.â
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Rose has said goodbye to Slash and Izzy and Duff and practically everyone heâs ever worked with. Guns Nâ Roses is like Chinese democracy: Thereâs one leader for life.Â And while new GNR can play the band's 20- to 25-year-old songs, it canât ever be the old GNR. Neither can the old GNR, even if they bury the hatchet to pocket the cash and reunite for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. What Paul McCartney said about the Beatles is true: You canât reheat a soufflÃ©. GNRâs âLive and Let Dieâ is now older than Paul McCartneyâs version was when they covered it in 1991.
What you can do is play the classics well, as GNR (and McCartney) does. Roseâs band is the real deal. Instead of bombing Iranâs nuke reactors, politicians should just use Ferrerâs drums to stun them into submission, make the sand bounce with the sonic assault of Ashba, Bumblefoot, Fortus and Stinson, and throw in the video monitorâs well-timed fireballs, which punctuated the punchy bits on âLive and Let Dieâ at the Wiltern. I canât imagine why Ashba chooses to wear a Slash-like hat, but heâs earned the right to play those Flash-fingered filigrees.
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Rose was superb at the keyboard, doing Elton John proud with âSomeone Saved My Life Tonight.â But he couldnât match Pitman and, as Rose referred to him Sunday night, âDizzy Fâ"ing Reed.â
Part of what made old GNR great was the tension of the talents, and the competition. Nobody dares compete with Rose now. Everybody gets a virtuoso solo, and they were wonderful, but all spotlights were under Roseâs control. Back when, anything could happen. Now everybody seems sober and professional and doing a job -- a top-notch job. But the drama is inevitably lessened. GNR used to be the top story on the rock planet. Yet when they came back big-time last weekend, all the headlines were about Charlie Sheen using the show as an excuse to get plowed. (Rapper Wiz Khalifa was spotted at Monday night's show at the Sunset Strip House of Blues.) With Sheen, anything can still happen (especially if itâs bad). With Axl Rose, you know exactly whatâs coming.
And that's a good thing. Thereâs more to life than risking death daily onstage. Maybe itâs better to make sure your music lives forever. As he sang âEstrangedâ so authoritatively Sunday night, Iâm absolutely sure Rose wasnât addressing his old bandmates. But I liked to think he was: "Guess Iâll have to make it through this time, oh, this time without you /Â I knew the storm was getting closer /Â And all my friends said I was high /Â But everything weâve ever knownâs here /Â I never wanted it to die."
Welcome to the Jungle
It's So Easy
Used to Love Her
Richard Fortus Guitar Solo (James Bond Theme)
Live and Let Die
This I Love
Dizzy Reed Piano Solo (Baba O'Riley)
Street of Dreams
You Could Be Mine
DJ Ashba Guitar Solo (Mi Amor)
Sweet Child O' Mine
Instrumental Jam (Another Brick In the Wall)
Axl Rose Piano Solo (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road/Someone Saved My Life Tonight)
Bumblefoot Guitar Solo (Pink Panther Theme)
Knockin' on Heaven's Door