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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Guns can't arrive until Rose does

Day 1, singer's tardiness spurred disaster. Day 2, they're rocking along the comeback trail.

November 11, 2002|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

TACOMA, Wash. — Welcome back to the jungle.

After nine years on the sidelines, Guns N' Roses, the most popular and volatile American hard-rock band of the '80s, is on the loose again in the U.S.

And one thing's for sure: The second day of the tour was better than the first.

It got off to a disastrous start Thursday when hundreds of fans rioted in Vancouver, Canada, after the concert there was canceled because lead singer Axl Rose's plane was still hours away in California. A dozen people were arrested in the resulting melee, and damage to the General Motors Place arena was estimated at $100,000.

On Friday, before 6,000 fans at the Tacoma Dome here, it was back to the music as Rose led the new Guns lineup through a frequently spectacular display of the dynamics that made GNR such an exciting attraction a decade ago.

"You didn't think we'd be here, did you?" Rose joked early in the show. Though the band had to battle sound problems in the massive building, the musicians seemed as explosive at times as the accompanying pyrotechnics.

Encouraged by the strong crowd response, Rose was in such good spirits that he even strapped a mini-KFC bucket to his head late in the set, imitating the stage trademark of Bucket-head, the avant-garde guitarist who is a centerpiece of the new Guns cast.

The contrast between the Vancouver flare-up and the Tacoma dynamics was a reminder of the contradictions that Guns N' Roses represented at its peak.

From the moment Rose, a high school dropout from Indiana, stepped on stage at Hollywood clubs in the early '80s, he was labeled the new Jim Morrison -- a wild child whose tales of demons and desperation seemed a little too real just to be products of a fertile imagination.

In public, Rose frequently acted so impulsively in stressful moments that he seemed like someone who had been dropped into a hostile world and was fighting back with the clawing tenacity of a trapped alley cat.

This led to ugly incidents, such as the time in 1991 in St. Louis when he jumped into the crowd to grab a camera from a fan and then left the stage, spurring a rampage that resulted in injuries and $200,000 in damage. Rose acknowledged his inner turmoil and turned to therapy the same year.

What made Rose matter to millions of rock fans was that he could write about his tensions and the rock lifestyle with raw, unfiltered images. The signature song "Welcome to the Jungle" spoke about the decadence and glamour of the Hollywood music scene with a vividness that makes it the hard-rock equivalent of the Eagles' "Hotel California."

At the same time, Rose could express lost innocence with rare tenderness and vulnerability in such memorable songs as "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "November Rain." It was a magical combination, and his partners in GNR presented the music with a mix of bravado and self-affirmation.

But the band split apart after a 1993 tour and Rose set about putting together a new version of Guns N' Roses and working on a new album.

The only topic of conversation here Friday as popular as the Vancouver cancellation was what GNR was going to be like without guitarist Slash and the other original members. The new lineup has played a few dates over the last two years, and reviews have been generally positive.

But the real test is this ambitious U.S. tour, which includes stops at the San Diego Sports Arena on Dec. 27 and at the Forum in Inglewood on Jan. 3 and 4. Ultimately, Rose needs to convince us that he still has something to offer, and there were moments during Friday's concert when you were impatient for him to get on with that process.

Rather than rethink the old material and put the songs in new and revealing contexts, Rose seemed too content to merely take us back to the '80s.

While much of the material remains stirring, some of the tunes, including "Think About You" and "My Michelle," feel dated. There was also a distance at times between the musicians and the music. It was as if they felt straitjacketed having to step into another band's shoes.

The most touching moments came when Rose seemed the most introspective. When he sang Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" early in the set, there was a solemnity about him, as if he were thinking about all those who have passed away in his own life, both literally and figuratively. He was equally moving at the piano when he sang "November Rain."

In the few times he turned to new songs that presumably will be on the new album, which is due next year, Rose seemed consistently engaged, and the band responded well to stepping beyond the shadow of GNR. Where his singing on the high-energy tunes sometimes seemed unduly shrill, he exhibited added character and feeling on the newer numbers. As the tour proceeds, Rose should preview more new songs to show more of who he is today, personally and musically.

He also can't afford any more incidents like Vancouver.

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