Ever since Axl Rose announced his intention to replace the original members of Guns N’ Roses with small-time impostors
and record Chinese Democracy, a techno-heavy follow-up to 1993’s messy Spaghetti Incident, he’s
made the unenviable transition from eccentric American idol to bloated punch-line. While Slash and Duff McKagan have enjoyed
massive success with their new band, Velvet Revolver, Rose has labored for more than a decade on an album that may have sounded
fresh when it was originally conceived, but has now almost certainly staled. Indeed, democracy will arrive in China before
Chinese Democracy arrives at your local record store.
Now, Axl’s back. A slimmed-down Rose, his hair braided into tight cornrows, took the stage Wednesday at the Warfield
in San Francisco and delivered the one thing nobody expected: an incident-free set of tightly rendered GN’R hits, culled
largely from the band’s blockbuster debut, Appetite For Destruction. Sure, there was some new material sprinkled
in for good measure, and it sounded vaguely more musical than the electronic hodgepodge he unveiled at the 2002 MTV Video
Music Awards, when the world witnessed a beefed-up Rose performing “Madagascar,” a new track, alongside wildly
off-key renditions of “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City.”
This time around, he was leaner but not meaner. Rose, infamous for his on-stage flare-ups and volatile mood swings, was positively
diplomatic, frequently thanking the crowd for the raucous applause following every GN’R staple and bidding them a safe
trip home at the end of the night. The band came out two hours late, of course – that’s just vintage Guns N’
Roses – and fans waiting patiently outside the theater for more than an hour after the concert was scheduled to begin
could only wonder if the mercurial singer was going to pull one of his patented no-shows.
Rose did show, and made the most of it. At 44, his vocal range has somehow returned, and his soaring wail enlivened the night’s
best numbers: “Mr. Brownstone,” “Out Ta Get Me” and “My Michelle,” a high-octane duet
with another relic from the heyday of hair metal, Sebastian Bach. And the band? There’s no replacing Slash and Duff,
at least in the hearts of fans, but Rose’s crew of hired Guns wasn’t firing blanks. A trio of guitarists, including
former Nine Inch Nail Robin Finck, picked up the slack, though none could duplicate Slash’s fluid fretwork. Subbing
onetime Primus drummer Brain for Matt Sorum is a wash – Sorum wasn’t around for the Appetite era, either.
And ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson lends a bit of indie cred to the band, even if his alliance with Rose seems unnatural.
At the Warfield, the band formed a tight, serviceable unit, delivering a blistering set of rock n’ roll anthems that
have lost none of their edge to age. Whether Rose releases Chinese Democracy in 2006, as he has insisted he will, was
of little concern to the sold-out crowd on hand. Even if Chinese Democracy never sees the light of day, it’s
comforting to know that Axl Rose is finally ready to tour, his piercing vocals and electrifying showmanship intact. It’s
just a shame he had to blow up the real Guns N’ Roses before that could happen.