When you think about it, a lot of things had to happen for Guns N’ Roses to end up playing the Covelli Centre on December 7, 2011. GNR was one of the biggest rock acts in the world in the early ’90s. Despite a reputation for Axl’s pouting on stage and the band’s inability to keep a punctual schedule, they managed to play stadiums without much trouble at their peak. Even after losing key members Slash, Duff McKagan, Izzy Stradlin and Matt Sorum, the band was still able to perform in large arenas upon its return in 2001. It took nearly a decade of uneven performances and prima donna behavior by Axl to erode the fanbase enough that smaller arenas were popping up on the tour itinerary in 2011.
For all intents and purposes, the Covelli Centre show had every indication of being a debacle. This wasn’t like Elton John coming around in 2010. John could do a smaller tour because he was at a point in a career where the big gigs didn’t really matter that much. GNR probably couldn’t fill large arenas in Pittsburgh and Cleveland anymore was the sad reality. Going on at midnight will do that to your more seasoned fanbase.
At the start of the tour, a video surfaced of Axl Rose and the band playing to a large crowd in Brazil. Clad in a bright yellow raincoat, Rose looked more ridiculous than usual. The torrential rain made the band sound like a muddy mess. Arenas in the cities on the US tour leg were crossing their fingers just like in the past. A funny thing happened, though. The band became proficient in developing regular starting times (around 11 p.m.) and played consistently long sets without any flack or outbursts from Rose.
Most people had no idea who the new characters in the band were. When the lights went down and the activity on stage came alive that all changed. Clearly this was a professional outfit which was well rehearsed and ready to deliver a full album-like sound. The three-pronged guitar assault of Bumblefoot, DJ Ashba and Richard Fortis gave people in the crowd plenty to look at when they weren’t paying attention to Axl. Bass player Tommy Stinson gave a nod to his punk roots in The Replacements with a cover of the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer”. There was even a nice little dig at Pearl Jam’s woeful attempts at covering the punk classic thrown in for good measure. Alas most in the crowd has no idea who the Dead Boys were or who the hell Stiv Bators was. Longtime member Dizzy Reed added the right accents on the keyboards and drummer Frank Ferrer was spot-on in his drumming abilities.
The most shocking thing was that Axl Rose actually looked like he was enjoying himself. There still was that aura of danger surrounding the band, but these men looked focused on the job. They weren’t in any hurry to bang a bus full of groupies or get the next hit of heroin. They sounded tight and went above and beyond what was expected of them nearly 25 years after they began. I must say as the night went on the band got better. I never understood the late start times before, but when it was after 1 a.m. and the band was chucking through “Night Train” it suddenly hit me that this stuff sounded way better at this hour.
Axl gave a quick nod to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the end of the show. Earlier in the day the band received word from the HOF that they would be inducted. It was a nice gesture, but at the same time you could feel the pressure of a reunion starting to build. On Saturday in Cleveland we will find out if something comes together. Seeing how the band operates now, I will say that Axl doesn’t need the hassles of playing with people he does not get along with. I think he may show up for the proceedings at the last minute (along with Dizzy Reed), but I also think he’s a man who would want some sort of rehearsal before attempting to play with guys he hasn’t shared the stage with in two decades. To me, he’s not even the biggest question mark. That would be Steven Adler. He has been a heartbeat away from drug overdose for quite some time now. I’m not even sure if he could handle a song or two under intense pressure. The old band has a right to worry about him making an absolute ass out of himself.
WHAT THE SHOW SOUNDED LIKE: YouTube has plenty of videos from it. There’s also an excellent fan audio recording of the show floating around. Check the fan message boards.