Axl Rose has been so reclusive and obsessive in the years since Guns ‘N Roses’ last full-on foray into the public eye, but he hasn’t, based on Friday’s appearance at the Hammerstein Ballroom, missed a step. Rose careened through a two-hour perf with all of the manic energy and banshee vocal agility of the band’s heyday.
True to form, Rose tested aud patience by taking a — to say the least — relaxed attitude towards timely performance, taking the stage a full 90 minutes after opening act Bullet for My Valentine finished. Having waited more than a decade for the chance to glimpse the new-model G ‘n R in action, however, fans didn’t seem prone to grumbling about the additional delay.
The singer wasted little time in breaking out the red meat, firing off a feral opening salvo of “Welcome to the Jungle” and “It’s So Easy” that crackled with live-wire intensity. Impressive though Rose’s voice was during the bulk of the set, he did come up noticeably winded after a few of his stage-crossing sprints.
This version of the band — other than Rose, only keyboardist Dizzy Reed has appeared on officially-released studio material — didn’t add perceptibly to the arrangements of the set’s battle-tested tunes. On the other hand, the musicians didn’t slip into tribute-band mimicry — primary guitarist Robin Finck, in particular, made an impression through leads that bristled with steely cool, a stark contrast to the sensual bluesiness of the departed Slash.
For most of the house, of course, the elephant in the room was “Chinese Democracy” — the album Rose has been tweaking fanatically lo these many years. The set — which didn’t end until well after one A.M., featured a surprisingly generous helping of the disc’s songs, which ran the gamut from gripping to baffling.
The tense, menacing “I.R.S.” fell squarely into the former category, its dark progressions enhanced by a throbbing keyboard underpinning and an infectious chorus that had many in the aud singing along — a fact Rose acknowledged with a wry “you fuckers sure know how to download.”
Other new offerings, however, dragged palpably, particularly the aimlessly sprawling “Madagascar” and a sloppy version of “Better,” neither of which yielded a memorable moment. That disjointed quality stemmed in part from the unwieldiness of the three-guitar lineup, of which new addition Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal — who was granted two solo spotlights, which proved two too many — seemed the most out of place.
While there were certainly moments of unfettered nostalgia — like Rose duetting with fellow ’80s survivor Sebastian Bach on “My Michelle” — the show didn’t feel like a Vegas spectacle. That’s due in large part to Rose’s force of will. The singer seems to have shed his “most likely to incite a riot” baggage, but the edginess that remains could clearly fuel a conflagration should the need arise.