NEW YORK — Would Axl Rose bail on us again?
That was the main question on the minds of the 3,300 people who packed the Hammerstein Ballroom here on Friday night. And if the unpredictable, reclusive Axl did come through, as promised, to take the stage with his current incarnation of Guns N' Roses, would the much-rumored reunion of expatriates Slash and Izzy Stradlin also materialize?
"I have my doubts," said Josh, a 24-year-old GN'R fan who drove down from Boston and coughed up $200 for a scalped ticket. "I was at the 2002 concert in Philadelphia, when he didn't show, and I was pissed. I thought it would never happen again. Guns is the best band ever. And if I see Slash tonight, I'll sh-- myself."
At around 11 p.m., the sell-out crowd — which included actor Ethan Hawke and Skid Row's Sebastian Bach — got some answers. Approximately an hour and 15 minutes after Guns were due to storm the Hammerstein stage, Rose emerged with his latest configuration, which — at the moment anyway — consists of keyboardists Dizzy Reed (the sole holdover from the Use Your Illusion-era lineup) and Chris Pittman, ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, former Primus kitman Brian "Brain" Mantia and three guitarists: erstwhile Nine Inch Nails member Robin Finck, ex-Psychedelic Furs axeman Richard Fortus and Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, a New York musician hired just last week to replace long-departed virtuoso Buckethead.
But it wasn't until the show's end, at around 1:30 a.m., that the realization set in: Sometimes rumors are just that. Slash Slash and Stradlin were nowhere to be found.
The audience (which ranged in age from not-yet-old-enough-to-vote to "Grandma? Is that you?," with the median age appearing to be around 35) welcomed Rose — who was clad in a pleather shirt unbuttoned to reveal a crucifix hanging from a large necklace, tattered blue jeans, designer shades and his cornrows tied back in a ponytail — and the band with thunderous cheers and screams as the band launched into its opener, "Welcome to the Jungle."
The gig was Rose's first in more than three years, and the first of four sold-out "warm-up" shows preceding GN'R's summer's worth of European festival appearances; the second concert went off Sunday night, with the third set for Monday (May 15), and the fourth on Wednesday (see "Guns N' Roses Line Up Two New York Shows"). The New York shows are Guns N' Roses' first since the ill-fated global comeback tour of 2002, which sputtered to a halt following the band's performance at New York's Madison Square Garden; Axl didn't take the stage for the following day's booking in Philadelphia, the crowd rioted, and the remaining dates were axed (see "It's Extra Official: Promoter Says GN'R Tour Totally Off").
Halfway through "Jungle," Rose was sopping wet — not since Patrick Ewing last hit the hardwood has one man sweated so profusely after just two minutes of physical exertion. As he roared, "I, I wanna hear you scream," Axl unleashed his signature serpentine sway.
Fire blasts and Roman candle-esque pyrotechnics exploded at all the appropriate moments, and the heat from these onstage detonations could even be felt by those huddled around the venue's back bar area. Indeed, the feel of the set was energized and huge: This was a stadium-size performance inside a theater; it was as if the band were playing for 50,000 fans.
Rose, 44, scampered around the stage like a schizophrenic with a hard-to-reach back itch, defying the extra poundage he's visibly added. However, his voice isn't what it once was: At several points during the 19-song set, it appeared Rose couldn't sustain certain notes, taking breathers here and there or simply deferring to the crowd. Although his pipes were smooth for most of the night, they failed him on at least two critical occasions: "Sweet Child O' Mine" and Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" (see "Axl Rose Named Coolest Old Person In Teen Mag Poll — Right After 'Grandparents' ").
The band also stumbled at times, most noticeably during "Better" — one of several new songs that have leaked online and are believed to be from Rose's decade-in-the-making LP Chinese Democracy, which he said in a recent interview should be out this fall. The crowd even sang along with many of the leaked tracks, which also included "Madagascar," "There Was a Time," "I.R.S.," "The Blues" and the album's title track (see "Are Guns N' Roses Finally Coming Back? The Signs Are There ...").
But the audience came to hear the classics, even if they were being performed by Axl and what basically amounts to a GN'R cover band. The floor at the Hammerstein seemed to buckle under the weight of the foot-stomping, horn-wielding mob during "It's So Easy," "Mr. Brownstone" and Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," which Axl introduced by saying, "This is about a place I've been one too many times."
The night's most memorable moments came with "November Rain," "Patience," and the confetti-coated closer, "Paradise City," which inspired a sea of butane-fueled light. Even the night's opening act, Bullet for My Valentine, couldn't resist rockin' out at the bar, even if it was in jest. At one point, Bach joined Rose onstage and the pair belted out "My Michelle," signaling an official, belated end to a long-running feud that many may have forgotten about.
Sunday night's performance brought virtually the same set, with one additional song tossed in to the mix: Appetite for Destruction's closer, "Rocket Queen." Rose seemed more comfortable during the second show and interacted with the audience, shaking hands and talking to fans; the show felt more organic overall.
Sure, this wasn't 1991, and yes, it was Rose standing up there with a bunch of hired guns that doesn't seem capable of holding a candle to the band's classic lineup — but regardless, the energy and the essence of GN'R remains intact. To true fans, hearing Axl sing those songs, and seeing his rosy mug, was enough to justify that hundreds they'd dropped on tickets and $85 GN'R hockey jerseys.
"I'm just psyched," said Terry, a 40-year-old fan from Long Island, after the show. "They nailed it. This was even better than I imagined. It didn't matter to me what they played — I was going to love it regardless."
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.