Back in the late eighties, MTV broadcast a series of concerts called Live At The Ritz, which aired on Saturday nights and were filmed at the famous concert venue in New York City’s East Village. A number of notable acts appeared on the program (The Cult and The Smithereens are two examples), but there’s only one episode of the show that is considered canon-worthy: Guns N’ Roses‘ February 1988 visit to the intimate rock club. It’s an incredible time capsule of GNR performing while at the peak of their powers, having just released the stone classic Appetite For Destruction and having not yet succumbed to the jealousy, in-fighting and substance abuse that eventually tore the group apart. The concert is especially memorable because it was filmed just before the band graduated to stadium-sized shows; Watching the videos, it’s remarkable to witness the palpable sense of electricity that existed that night between the band and their rapturous audience.
Now, I don’t need to tell you that the Guns N’ Roses of 1988 bares little resemblance to the Guns N’ Roses of 2012. But you know what? That’s perfectly okay with us, in a whole “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” sort of way. (Translation: I, too, bare little resemblance to the 1988 version of me, and I’d bet you dollars to donuts that the same is true of you.) It’s true that the only constant between the two eras is one W. Axl Rose, but when news broke late last month that he would be taking Guns N’ Roses out on a rapidfire mini-tour of club-sized venues, rock and roll fans instantly snapped up tickets for a chance to re-connect with Axl in a way that has not been possible since the Reagan era.
In a nod to the famous concert that took place there 24 years ago, New York City’s Webster Hall rechristened itself as The Ritz for last night’s Guns N’ Roses concert (for one night only). The set time was billed only as starting “after 10 p.m.” and, true to form, the band didn’t take the stage until 11:54 p.m. The crowd didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, though; it was as if everyone in the audience stepped through a time portal as they entered the venue and were instantly granted the stamina (and alcohol tolerance) they had back in ’88. The crowd was well-lubricated and excited to connect with the mysterious enigma and consummate showman that is W. Axl Rose, so no one gave a rip about either the wait OR the fact that the band’s first song was “Chinese Democracy” and not their traditional show opener, “Welcome To The Jungle” (that song came second).
Speaking of “Welcome To The Jungle,” it’s probably an appropriate time address the elephant in the room: Are Guns N’ Roses still Guns N’ Roses without the presence of Slash and Duff and Steven and Izzy on stage? The answer is semi-complicated, so bear with us as we work through it with you. The 2012 version of GNR, which includes fretwork courtesy of Bumblefoot, DJ Ashba and Richard Fortus, is a technically precise outfit that is incredibly skilled at bringing Axl’s grandiose musical vision to life. Close your eyes the songs certainly SOUND precisely like you remember, down to the little flourishes during the razor sharp guitar solos, but there is something visually disconcerting about seeing “new guys” — some of whom, we should note, have been in the band WAY longer than anyone from the original lineup can claim they lasted — playing songs that you’re used to seeing the “old guys” perform. The rhythms and melodies are also a little bit less muscular than what the ’88 lineup used to crank out, but again, if you were to close your eyes and let yourself be enveloped by the sound (not to mention the secondhand marijuana smoke that hung in the air like a gorgeous cloud), you would be hard pressed to offer up any complaints.
As for Axl, well, he’s impossible to take your eyes off, even when he’s not on stage (which was semi-frequently). The 50-year-old bounded around the stage with seemingly limitless energy; he was frequently seen sprinting, and rarely stood in the same place for more than a few seconds at a time. His voice got sounded powerful and moving in both his lower-register gear and his near-falsetto caterwauls, and appeared to get stronger as the evening wore on. He really seemed to enjoy working in a significantly smaller space than he’s used to, and he used the opportunity to physically connect to his band members with a number of back-to-back leans. He didn’t do the snake dance as much as we hoped, but then again, we also left before the show wrapped up.
Speaking of which! We left the club at 2:45 a.m., at which point GNR had already been playing for nearly three hours. Their set was mainly comprised of Appetite and Use Your Illusion era faves; we only heard a few songs from Chinese Democracy mixed in there. The highlight of the evening came around 1:30 a.m., when roadies wheeled a piano out on stage and Axl tickled the ivories for a stretch. He led his band in a cover of Pink Floyd‘s “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” and then mixed in quick references to Elton John‘s “Somebody Saved My Life Tonight” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” before launching into an epic version of “November Rain.” The revelers, myself included, were awash in nostalgia as the single best power ballad in the history of music played out before our eyes and ears. As the song built into its glorious crescendo of pounding piano and searing guitar solos, we confess that there was a moment there when the vision of Slash playing on the edge of a cliff from the music video entered our heads. So we closed our eyes, lost ourselves in our memories for a few moments, and let the majestic sounds of Guns N’ Roses envelop us. At a Guns N’ Roses show in 2012, sight is definitely not the most important of your five senses.
Guns N’ Roses have four more planned dates on their Up Close And Personal tour: Feb. 19 in Chicago, Feb. 20 in Detroit, Feb. 23 in Silver Spring, MD, and Feb. 24 in Atlantic City. If you live in or near any of these towns, we implore you to attend!