GN'R live in NYC: How's the current lineup? Ryan Dombal reviews Axl and his band before they head out on a European tour

By Ryan Dombal
Updated May 16, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Guns N' Roses: Lastnightsparty / Retna

Guns N’ Roses in NYC

Guns N’ Roses
Hammerstein Ballroom
May 12, 2006

Yes, he showed up.

Since the revamped GN’R last appeared onstage (at Madison Square Garden in December 2002), Axl Rose has let down his suffering faithful with a string of live cancellations and broken promises regarding Chinese Democracy, the album that continues to redefine the term ”long-awaited.” But the singer is attempting to right his forever faltering hard-rock ship with an extensive European tour this summer, preceded by four warm-up gigs at NYC’s relatively tiny Hammerstein Ballroom. On the first night of the Gotham stop, the now 44-year-old Rose took the stage more or less on time(!) and led his six-piece band through a ripping 2-hour-and-15-minute set that was equal parts rock & roll spectacle, deafening nostalgia act, and enigmatic oddity.

Initially strutting out to the ominous guitar echoes of ”Welcome to the Jungle,” Rose prowled the stage throughout the night while showcasing his trademark acidic squeal, which has aged considerably well. Forgoing the ineffably lame giant-jersey getup of recent years, the redheaded trouble-starter wisely rocked a more straightforward black-shirt-and-jeans combo, his tight dreadlocks tied in a ponytail. From beginning to end, Rose was in constant motion, running and gesturing wildly. His enthusiasm often caught up with him, though — he disappeared to take mini-breaks, sometimes midsong, and his vocals were frequently lost during the set’s more cacophonous climaxes.

Still, the reclusive frontman largely made up for such slights with a fierce sense of showmanship rarely seen in today’s post-irony age. Although Rose now looks more like a professional wrestler than the heroin-chic skinny-boy of his late-’80s/early-’90s salad days, his patented snake maneuver was still recognizable, albeit a little surreal. The same could be said for most of the show: Though the group played megahits like ”Paradise City” and ”November Rain” with note-for-note accuracy, the new lineup’s overall vibe is a far cry from the chain-smoking L.A. gutter punks of yesteryear.

Taking over for the hirsute, top-hat-wearing lead guitarist Slash was the hirsute, vest-wearing Robin Finck, a former Nine Inch Nails ax-man who looked like a cross between the Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante and the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson. He, like the rest of the band, was caught in a cruel catch-22 for most of the night, stuck between trying to prove his unique chops on the set list’s six less-than-memorable new tracks and dutifully mimicking the greatness of the 13 songs everybody knew (including highlights ”Sweet Child O’ Mine” and an exhilarating ”Nightrain”).

Though hardly recognizable to the casual fan, the 2006 GN’R lineup has basically been intact since at least 2002, with one exception — in the place of previous guitar eccentric Buckethead was another three syllable B-man, Bumblefoot, who made his GN’R debut boasting the same stunning (albeit soulless) virtuosity of his forebear. But instead of a freaky mask-‘n’-KFC-bucket look, Bumblefoot limited his weirdness to a foot-shaped guitar.

Something that helped set this new group apart was a genuine feeling of goodwill among its members, especially between Rose and the jovial former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, whose exuberance was contagious. ”I’m having a really good f—ing time right now, are you?” he asked Rose with a mix of little-kid excitement and relief. ”You have no idea what that means,” replied the singer as he draped his arm around Stinson. The moment showed that this 2006 GN’R just could be the one to finally become famous for more than canceling shows and pushing back release dates. Emphasis, as always, on ”could.”

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