Before the show began, there were three popular topics of discussion in the upstairs bar: 1) the New York Knicks; 2) “Who the fuck are the Toilet Boys?” (the opening band); and 3) what time would Axl Rose and the rest of Guns N’ Roses take the stage at Webster Hall, dubbed “The Ritz,” its former name, for one night only to celebrate the band’s historic 1988 performance there.
Roughly an hour after “Linsanity” rolled on with the Knicks winning their seventh straight game, and the Runaways-meets-80s excess Toilet Boys played a poorly-received 40-minute set, the now eight-man Gn’R came out a few minutes before midnight (two hours after doors opened), greeted by the theme from Dexter playing over the PA.
If you closed your eyes, they sure sounded like Guns N’ Roses, even if they looked like Axl Rose N’ Bumblefoot/Bassist from the Replacements. The group’s flamboyant, bombastic, slowed-down-punk-for-the meat-and-potatoes-and-cocaine-crowd sound was still there, and “Welcome to the Jungle,” “It’s So Easy,” “Mr. Brownstone,” and “Rocket Queen” are still as aggressive and menacing (and great) as they were when Slash was a member of the group. The crowd was singing along, the mosh pit was physical—I got pulled from behind by the hood on my hoodie at one point, and multiple people were bleeding before the clock hit 1 a.m.— and Axl, ever the showman, was as good as ever, his voice having lost none of its unmistakable stuttering, yowling tone.
But then came the solos, with nearly every member of the group represented, including guitarists Richard Fortus and DJ Ashba and long-time keyboard/piano player Dizzy Reed, while Axl ran off stage to change his shirt, put on another hat and headband combination, and do whatever else Axl does when he’s not being watched. (If ever you should see Guns N’ Roses live, watch Axl’s face while he’s on stage; it’s a fascinating combination of being happy to make so many other people happy, mixed with the contempt that egomaniacs feel when they do become famous, like he’s not sure whether to love us for knowing the words or hate us because we expect too much from him.)
And then came the covers, including the James Bond theme, an instrumental “Baba O’Riley,” and a full-band jam to “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” not to mention Axl’s piano lead-up to “November Rain” with snippets from “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” For awhile, it was cheesy and kind of cute, but two hours into the show, after multiple extended, unnecessary riffs used primarily to let Axl disappear again, it’s tough getting TOO pumped up for Bumblefoot’s cover of “The Pink Panther Theme.” In some ways, this current incarnation of Guns N’ Roses is a tribute band, albeit one with the original singer intact — and who wants to hear a Gn’R tribute band performing Elton John covers?
That said, “November Rain” is still the perfect power ballad, though a large can of Monster Energy Drink now rests on Axl’s black piano, instead of Stephanie Seymour. (Damn.) When Guns N’ Roses put aside the filler and went back to playing “Nightrain,” “My Michelle,” and set-closer “Paradise City,” both the crowd and the band seemed to regain the stamina they had previously lost. In all, they played for three hours, nearly an hour longer than was necessary (and yes, I realize the hypocrisy of criticizing a band known for its garishness and excess, a band that released two 80-minute albums on the same day, on playing too long.) But when the show was good, as much of it was, it was good. “Where do we go now?” Axl once asked. I’m not sure, but it’s nice that you’re at least invested again. Now if only those Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame rumors come to fruition…