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Nothing lasts forever in the cold November rain, but on a chilly March night at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theater (capacity: 2,200), 50-year-old Axl Rose proved that Guns N’ Roses might last until he’s 100. During a 30-song set, the frontman sang the bejesus out of all the hits, accompanied by the audience (especially on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”) and his band du jour: longtime GNR keyboardist Dizzy Reed, 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 Rose’s 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 “Rocket Queen” and “Sorry.” In delicate, rather feminine gestures, his right hand interpreted the songs (helpful for those half-deafened by GNR). He ended “Sorry” 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.
He was an entertainer so charming, you’d never know he had the reputation of an asshole. It’s almost like Rose’s appetite for destruction became an appetite for audience seduction. “November Rain,” “Patience,” and “Sweet Child o’ Mine” were never sweeter, and he sang “I used to love her, but I had to kill her” 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 “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City” or just about every song you’d expect.
But even the raw moments had an autumnal feel of emotion recollected in tranquility. Rose’s 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, “She wouldn’t say goodbye, it just might be that I had seen it in her eyes.”
Rose has said goodbye to Slash and Izzy and Duff and practically everyone he’s ever worked with. Guns N’ Roses is like Chinese democracy: There’s one leader for life. And while new GNR can play the band’s 20- to 25-year-old songs, it can’t 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 can’t reheat a soufflé. GNR’s “Live and Let Die” is now older than Paul McCartney’s version was when they covered it in 1991.
What you can do is play the classics well, as GNR (and McCartney) does. Rose’s band is the real deal. Instead of bombing Iran’s nuke reactors, politicians should just use Ferrer’s 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 monitor’s well-timed fireballs, which punctuated the punchy bits on “Live and Let Die” at the Wiltern. I can’t imagine why Ashba chooses to wear a Slash-like hat, but he’s earned the right to play those Flash-fingered filigrees.
Rose was superb at the keyboard, doing Elton John proud with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” But he couldn’t match Pitman and, as Rose referred to him Sunday night, “Dizzy F—ing Reed.”
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 Rose’s 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 it’s bad). With Axl Rose, you know exactly what’s coming.
And that’s a good thing. There’s more to life than risking death daily onstage. Maybe it’s better to make sure your music lives forever. As he sang “Estranged” so authoritatively Sunday night, I’m absolutely sure Rose wasn’t addressing his old bandmates. But I liked to think he was: “Guess I’ll have to make it through this time, oh, this time without you / I knew the storm was getting closer / And all my friends said I was high / But everything we’ve ever known’s here / 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
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