BROOKLYN, New York — Guns N' Roses played a bowling alley in Brooklyn last night.
That sentence says all you need to know. Was the Gunners' pre-Governors' Ball gig at Brooklyn Bowl particularly revelatory? No. Were there moments when the throngs of diehards who shelled out $150 to witness the spectacle looked bored? Absolutely (mostly during the Chinese Democracy songs). Did Axl Rose — who wore a fedora that made him look like Van Helsing, and didn't take his sunglasses off once — seem to care? Have you been paying attention for the past two decades?
So, yes, GNR tore through Brooklyn on Thursday, shutting down the lanes for the night (bowling is not permitted when Axl is doing his thing) and powering their way through a set meant for stages far larger that this one. The hits came fast and furious — "Welcome to the Jungle" was the second song they played, and they made sure to do "Mr. Brownstone," "Sweet Child O' Mine," and "Paradise City" too — and there were showcase solos for all three of the guitarists (former Replacements man Tommy Stinson even got to do a couple of tunes). But the most fascinating thing about their set was how resolute Axl was. Simply put, he wasn't going to let a tiny room stand in the way of delivering an arena-sized set.
That's not exactly surprising. But once the initial thrill of seeing a band so huge in a venue so small wore off, well, there wasn't much left to get excited about. Every instrument on the stage — and there were a lot of them; GNR now rolls 8 dudes deep was cranked to soccer-stadium volumes, which not only made for a muddy mix, but almost totally drowned out Rose's famed pipes. And rather than just delight fans with an off-the-cuff, one-night-only set, GNR made sure to play songs from Democracy ("Better," "This I Love"), which sent masses to the bathroom or the bar. This was a Guns show, circa 2013, for better or worse.
It bears mention that Rose was in pretty decent form; sure he disappeared for long stretches of the set, and his serpentine wasn't on display, but on songs like "Live and Let Die" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" he wailed, and, for a second, you were transported back to the Sunset Strip. And anyone hoping for one of the mercurial frontman's patented tantrums went home disappointed; aside from a few comments ("I'm having a good time, but it's taking a lot of focus,") Axl was punching the clock, ready and somewhat willing to rock. Shoot, he was even punctual; Guns were supposed to take the stage at 11 p.m., and by 11:15 they were midway through "Jungle."
This was, in short, a professional rock show. Did it feel like Guns N' Roses were going through the motions? Sure. There were long stretches — a three-song run of "Civil War," "Better" and "Estranged," for instance — where you couldn't help but check your phone, but that was probably to be expected. If the past 20 years have proven anything, it's that Axl only does things his way, and regardless if he was paying Brazil or Brooklyn, you were going to get the same thing: a long-running, somewhat befuddling set, super-sized with all the trappings and none of the sentiment. Guns N' Roses played a bowling alley last night; and they did it on their own terms. That's all you need to know.