ATLANTIC CITY - When Axl Rose took the House of Blues stage early Saturday morning to drunken cheers, chants and eager fans, it was one of those amazing rock concert moments when everyone there knew they were in for something special.
They were right.
Rose brought his latest incarnation of Guns N’ Roses to the intimate Showboat Casino-Hotel concert hall, in what was arguably the biggest show there since Eminem opened the joint in 2005.
GNR did not disappoint, performing more than 30 songs in a three-hour-plus concert that was loud, edgy and epic, just like a GNR show should be.
Billed the “Up Close and Personal” tour, the band’s trek to smaller venues offered a different experience for GNR fans. Up until this point, GNR played arenas and large outdoor festivals. To see Rose and his amazingly talented ensemble in such a small setting was beyond a treat: It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that may have very well been worth the hundreds of dollars ticket brokers were getting online for the show, which sold out soon after it went on sale.
“Up Close and Personal” showed a tighter band than their previous arena tours. There was no pyro this time around. But they played longer, they played tighter and they seemed to revel in the fact that the audience was an arm’s-length away, particularly Rose, who still has that rock star swagger and looked cool with a black fedora taking the place of the cornrows he once spotted during the band's peak of popularity.
GNR pulled no punches, offering an all-out rock assault that included most of the hits fans would want to hear.
Opening with the title track of "Chinese Democracy," the band's latest release, they steamrolled right into “Welcome to the Jungle,” perhaps the band’s best and most popular song before going into two companion songs from “Appetite for Destruction,” "It's So Easy" and "Mr. Brownstone."
The Los Angeles -based rockers played three-quarters of "Appetite," the band’s 1987 debut album that propelled GNR to superstardom, including "You’re Crazy,” “Rocket Queen,” “Nighttrain,” the superbly performed "Sweet Child O’Mine” and the smash hit “Paradise City,” which served as the night’s finale.
The songs from “Appetite” went over the best, with good reason. They are more about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll and have a raw, rock sound reminiscent of Aerosmith and AC/DC than the band’s later stuff, particularly “Use Your Illusion I” and “II,” which became less in your face and more epic, polished and Queen-like as Rose focused on his own self persecution. Most of those songs have aged well and will always be played among some of the best rock ever recorded.
That said, the entire Guns catalog, albeit small, is impressive and GNR is perfectly content to be a band rooted in ’70s and ’80s influences and styles. Even 2008’s underrated “Chinese Democracy,” from which GNR played about a half dozen songs Saturday, didn’t reinvent the band’s sound, even though it was 17 years in the making.
And that is what makes Rose and GNR so cool. They are proud of what they are. And the songs from “Chinese” played on Friday – particularly “Better,” “Shackler’s Revenge” and the title track – are awesome songs.
Other highlights included “Illusion” tracks such as “Don’t Cry,” “Estranged," "Civil War” and covers of Paul McCartney and the Wings’ “Live and Let Die” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Particularly impressive was “November Rain,” a sprawling masterpiece with Rose on piano that was as amazing live as it was from the studio. And they surprised the crowd, deviating from their normal setlist to cover AC/DC's "Whole Lotta Rosie," breathing new life into the classic song.
The mellow “Patience,” known best for Rose’s whistling, and the more punky “Used to Love Her” were the only tracks played from 1998’s “Lies.”
Rose’s schizophrenic writing style is what makes GNR so popular and still relevant. And no matter what era of GNR you point to, Rose’s endless stream of underlying anger is always the impetus that drives his powerful creations.
At 50 years old, Rose’s voice remains awesome, hitting the ridiculously high notes he wrote for himself when he was young and fearless. His stage energy and showmanship remain impressive as he shimmies like a snake and is always giving it his all
Rose has surrounded himself with an ensemble of awesome musicians, particularly guitarists DJ Ashba and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, as well as keyboardist Dizzy Reed, the longest member of GNR outside of Rose.
The band also had fun stretching out as guitarist Richard Fortus' solo offered a blistering version of the James Bond theme, bassist and Replacements member Tommy Stinson sang his own song, the catchy "Motivation," Reed played a solo piano version of The Who's "Baba O'Reilly" and Thal offered a less-than-inspiring guitar solo of the theme from the "Pink Panther."
So what is the next chapter for GNR? Many think the band’s April induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will become a reunion of sorts with Axl, Slash and the boys. But to be honest, while that might be fun and nostalgic for fans, isn’t it enough to continue to see a seemingly happy Rose rock out with a great band than a half-hearted reunion that is only doomed to end badly?
Welcome to he Jungle
It's So Easy
Richard Fortus guitar solo (James Bond theme)
Live and Let Die
This I Love
Used to Love Her
Motivation (Tommy Stinson song with Stinson on vocals)
Dizzy Reed piano solo (The Who's "Baba O'Reilly")
Street of Dreams
You Could Be Mine
DJ Ashba guitar solo
Sweet Child O' Mine
Instrumental (Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2")
Axl Rose piano solo
Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal guitar solo ("Pink Panther" theme)
Knockin' on Heaven's Door
Whole Lotta Rosie