For a man with so much on the line, Axl Rose’s 2½-hour perf at Gibson Amphitheater — the first of three scheduled L.A. shows, and something of a homecoming — felt pro forma and desultory. Rose took the stage as scheduled, but the combative, charismatic frontman was nowhere to be seen. He complimented the “boisterous” crowd and the “loud” room, but, other than to introduce the band, he remained silent on recent changes (a fired manager and a new release date for the much-delayed “Chinese Democracy”) in the GN’R camp. The set list, heavy on “Appetite for Destruction” (accounting for nearly half of the 20-song set) and nearly ignoring “Use Your Illusion,” was as much a journey through the past as the Rolling Stones’ recent Dodger Stadium appearance.
Rose spent a good deal of the time running around the two-tiered stage, leaning out into the aud, shaking hands with the desperation of a politician with low poll numbers, but there was no spark or connection. He’s a little thicker in the middle; when he does his trademark serpentine dance moves, he occasionally puts one hand on the small of his back, as if he just pulled something. With his taut, nearly immobile facial features and cornrowed hair pulled back into a ponytail, he looked like a waxworks figure, leading to the conclusion that the only thing Rose injects these days is Botox.
His voice is gone — at times it either gave out on him completely, or was mixed so low it was barely audible. And he rarely stayed onstage for an entire song, running to the wings during the instrumental breaks or various band members’ interminable solo showcases. He returned each time with a fresh shirt (Rose would quickly sweat through his clothing, although his face remained oddly dry) and a somewhat stronger voice.
Rose’s mood brightened late in the set when he was joined on stage by former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach for a playful “My Michelle.” Former Guns guitarist Izzy Stradlin followed, sitting in with the band for a couple of songs, including “Patience” and a raucous “Used to Love Her.”
The addition of Stradlin meant there were four guitarists on stage, making the already flabby arrangements only less defined. And while Rose does give his musicians plenty of space to strut their stuff, none of them made an especially memorable impression. Their solo showcases: guitarist Robin Finke’s Pink Floyd-styled prog-rock; former Psychedelic Fur Richard Fortes covering Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel”; and Dizzy Reed’s clumsy piano arrangement of the Stones’ “Angie,” stopping the already slack set dead in its tracks.
The newer songs work better with the revamped line-up, but that’s not much of a compliment. It’s obvious Rose has been working on these songs for quite some time, which isn’t to say they’re very good. Their layering of guitar and keyboard parts and clunky, overwrought structures are the result of a musician who has lost all perspective.
But all that focus on the album has left the band in an odd position: the tossed-off older songs are half-baked, the newer material is overcooked. What’s even odder is how all this turmoil results in a show so lacking in tension and drama.
Rose and his band were preceded by three acts that atomized the elements that once made Guns N’ Roses so successful: Sebastian Bach embodied the sex-crazed, potty mouthed frontman, Helmet added an unyielding guitar crunch and the Suicide Girls boho-burlesque act provided the topless women that were so much a part of Guns mystique.