Guns N' Roses: The Best Concert of 2011
At 11:10pm, the intro music to the Showtime series Dexter came on inside the Allstate Arena. The lights dimmed and shadows made their way to the stage and the occasional instrument could be seen. As a slow burning build began, guitarist DJ Ashba stood on top of a raised platform tearing through the opening riff of "Chinese Democracy". Followed by a titanic pyrotechnic eruption, the crowd roared as one man made his way to the front of the stage; Axl Rose. Some singers go on stage and perform, but right from the opening notes of "Chinese Democracy" Rose wailed like a man possessed. Five years ago I witnessed one of the greatest concerts of the decade when Rose gave a performance for the ages. He didn't have an album to promote and he was battling an ear infection and strep throat. None of this was evident to my eyes as he had something to prove and his appetite of determination exceeded everything else. It was that evening when I became a believer of what he is trying to accomplish. The original band, which I adore and respect beyond words, become secondary to me from that moment on. Five years later he has returned to Chicago with a record under his belt and a slightly modified but deeply dynamic group of musicians backing him and the crazed enthusiasm was the same. In 2006 it was about the sheer determination of Axl Rose, whereas this time it was about the band flexing their muscular strength showing everyone they're more than a hyped cover band but a honest to goodness band that utterly owned these songs.
For "Welcome to the Jungle", eighteen guitar strings attacked the crowd as Tommy Stinson's bass was expressive and powerful. "It's So Easy" featured Stinson harmonizing with Rose on verse and chorus in a sneering manner. Throughout the evening, there was an unspoken dialogue between Stinson and Rose as the two men led the other six into battle. Tommy Stinson funneled the groove of "Rocket Queen" where Rose slithered across the stage. "You Could Be Mine" began with intentional distorted chaos before the band converges into overdrive amidst flames and pyrotechnics. "Nightrain" found guitarist DJ Ashba making his way half way through the arena on the chairs on the side of the stage, all the while without missing a note. Rose, the band's three guitarists and Stinson freely roamed the main stage sprinting past one another in an almost dizzying manner. The drums, piano and instrumentalist Chris Pittman were on an elevated platform towards the back of the stage which Rose and Ashba often climbed for certain songs. The stage was vast and surrounded by seven screens providing animation, clips and up-close shots of the band as they dashed across the stage.
The songs from Chinese Democracy were wisely sprinkled throughout the set allowing them to unfurl on the crowd. "Sorry" featured a joint solo by DJ Ashba and Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal. You hear the pain on record, but you feel the throbbing heartbeat bounce off your chest in concert. "This I Love" found Rose removing his sunglasses and delivering an especially heartrending vocal. There may be some who feel I'm going easy on Rose but I can assure you, I'm not. I'll be the first to tell you if I felt he was faking his way through all of this, he's not. As the song rang to its finish, Rose stood motionless on top of an amp at the front and center of the stage even after the lights had dimmed. This isn't about show boating but most likely recomposing himself after the psychological cleanse he just experienced. "Madagascar" and "Shackler's Revenge" were especially notable for the guitar work of Bumblefoot (utilizing a double neck electric guitar) Richard Fortus who showed off his six-pack as his wavy shirt flew open. Both musicians elevated the songs and these performances stand apart from their studio counterparts with great stage potency. These tactile assaults were delivered from an indestructible foundation the seven band members forged. The pining, scorn and bewilderment that embodies Chinese Democracy were more tangible in concert.
Drummer Frank Ferrer was also a sight to behold on the raised stage he shared with Dizzy Reed and instrumentalist Chris Pittman. When I saw the band in 2006, they shocked and awed with their forceful willpower. Ferrer had just joined the band a few months earlier in 2006 and his drumming while spot-on didn't go outside of the lines. He had yet to put his own stamp on the songs. Flash forward five years and he crushed his drum kit with a meticulous swing which he brought to the whole show. He knew precisely when to reign in his bare knuckle drumming and also when to unleash the monster within. His drumming in the band Love Spit Love (which featured Psychedelic Furs singer Richard Butler and current GN'R guitarist Richard Fortus) was tender and yearning especially on the cut "Am I Wrong". He has presence and precision generates an outpouring of emotions as his beat slowly tickles the inner psyche perfectly complimenting the vocal. Back in 2006, Bumblefoot was new to the band and for his guitar solo, he performed "Don't Cry" in its entirety without any vocals. This time around he delivered a winking solo of the "Pink Panther Theme" followed by the entire band nailing "Don't Cry", which made a most welcomed return. Rose's grief-stricken vocal reverberated throughout the arena.
Taking a page from Springsteen, Rose clearly knows what he's up against. Slowly but surely he's upping his game with every tour and made sure the backing musicians are more than great players but musicians who do more than replicate mere notes but who are open to an active collaboration. These eight members perform each of the songs with brazen confidence that spilled over into their performances. There are those who will never welcome this incarnation of the band. I wish it wasn't the case as this band deserves to be seen, heard and above all else admired for doing the impossible; making these classic songs their own. "Sweet Child O' Mine" was a showcase for the triple guitar assault of DJ Ashba, Bumblefoot and Richard Fortus. Ashba performed the luminescent opening riff, Bumblefoot replicated the solo with beauty and Fortus channeled Ron Wood on unbelievable and mean rhythm guitar. All three guitarists amazed as they traded off solos, rhythm guitar and arena rock flashiness.
Much has been written about the extended solos and jams the band execute and they've often been chastised for being overlong. To my eyes, they gave each member a chance to flex their powers in front of the crowd. None of these showcases felt superfluous and often featured exhilarating covers. Bassist Tommy Stinson and the band embodied their punk pasts through a bracing cover of the Who's "My Generation". Dizzy Reed's piano solo defied logic. He shred the keys like a guitar God, but instead of aimless jamming, he delivered "Baba O'Riley" in a thunderous rendition where until the very last section, was completely absent of anything other than his hands upon the keys of the big baby grand piano. Without question, it was the most enthusiastically received of the solo spots. What initially felt like an aimless jam wound up being "Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2" and when it ended Axl Rose was behind the piano facing the crowd at the front of the stage where he found his bearings, performed a snippet of Elton John's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" before leading into a astounding "November Rain". For the epic sway of the finale, all three guitarists and Stinson surrounded the piano and the band rode this one home victoriously. Forget the video or the images in your mind, watching this band transport this song in concert is the physical equivalent of being hit by lightning. They're so in tune with one another and this nearly ten-minute epic and its pyrotechnic rain shower exploded off the stage.
Two AC/DC covers, "Riff Raff" and "Whole Lotta Rosie" were vitalizing and brought out the inner child of Rose and he danced and looked happy beyond words to be on the concert stage. On "Patience" Fortus and Bumblefoot tenderly played their acoustic guitars while Ashba's electric guitar was aimed squarely at the heart giving a wholly distinctive feel to the song that differs from how I've heard it before. Much credit must be given to Ashba as he helped the band achieve a sense of majesty through his towering stage presence and fiery guitar work. Next to Rose, he spent the most time wandering the stage, climbing rails and even venturing into the crowd. His presence was undeniable; you could not take your eyes off of him. More importantly, he became the heir apparent to these guitar riffs and solos. He didn't merely play them, he embodied them.
What differentiates Guns N' Roses from many of their contemporaries is the emotional wallop their songs present. The masterful pairing of "Estranged" (from Use Your Illusion II) and "Better" (from Chinese Democracy) featured not just tip-top performances but unrelenting emotions pour out on the stage. There's a difference between Axl Rose and just about every other performer. I don't personally believe that Rose is a "performer". Sure, he puts his shoes, pants, shirt, necklace, hat and sunglasses but it's not a stage uniform or something to make him look hip or cool. He is simply Axl Rose. The disparity between say Gene Simmons and Axl is that Simmons is playing a character whereas Rose is out there doing wrestling with something most acts can't capture even with bait. Rose knows there's a place within that he goes when the lights go out. Whether he goes there or he needs to purge it, I can't say but when you hear his pining wail on "Estranged" you don't just believe it-you feel it. On "Better" the band reached new heights and went into a rarefied kill zone that most acts hope to find once a show and for other acts, they're fortunate to find it once a tour. It's a moment where something from within pours out and is so irrefutable, that those in the audience who are paying attention stand up, take notice and their entire thought process changes. It's here where you realize this isn't an ego trip or even a group of insanely talented musicians all on one stage. It's a band whose combined expressive efforts show us a part of ourselves we didn't know existed until we heard these songs. It awakes a part inside we forgot about and hid. Many say that when things are normal they feel most alive. I'd dare to say when we are at our darkest moments is when we feel most alive. We're not guaranteed happiness when we unfurl ourselves from our mother's womb. We're faced with two hard realities at those first moments; pain and death. No one is immune to it and despite what anyone says, no amount of money or fame can soothe it. More than any other artist in this planet, Axl Rose lets us inside his world. The acts that do this dwindle by the day. Too many are making grand gestures about the world they feel will be good publicity for them whereas music is at its best when it speaks directly to you. One of the reasons Appetite for Destruction and Use Your Illusion were so celebrated was because of their inherent realism. The same can be said of Chinese Democracy which few were open minded enough to allow it unfold. You may have a specific image of Guns N' Roses in your head you can't let go of, but if you allow yourself to put that picture away for three hours, you will witness more than a evening of nostalgia but a exorcism of one man's demons and a group of musicians that will defy the odds and take you places you never knew existed. The nearly three hour show was chock full of hits, covers, extended jams and a plethora of biting material from the controversial Chinese Democracy. Guns N' Roses isn't a group of musicians merely trying to recapture past glories, they're making their own history.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Guns N' Roses: The Best Concert of 2011