By Kurt Loder
RIO DE JANEIRO — The capstone of the third night of the big Rock in Rio festival — which is being held in a huge lot in the sun-baked suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, filled with state-of-the-art stages, grandstands, and all the usual festival midway attractions — was the world-stage debut of the newly resuscitated Guns N' Roses.
The already legendary L.A. band had been mysteriously missing-in-action since the release of its last album, an inconsequential compilation of punk-metal covers called The Spaghetti Incident?, way back in 1993, following which the group had noisily fallen apart amid a welter of interpersonal recriminations and endless lawsuits.
Mercurial frontman Axl Rose had emerged from these wranglings with legal rights to all further use of the GN'R name, and for years he'd been rumored to be working on a new album, with new musicians, in a Los Angeles studio that was said to have been booked around the clock for his personal use. No album ever appeared, however, and as the sediment of wasted years settled around him, Rose became a figure of rock and roll myth. It was asserted as fact within the industry that he'd become a complete recluse, keeping vampire hours in the studio to monitor the daytime labors of his newly hired players, but otherwise remaining hidden in his mansion, where he hosted endless dinner parties, grew fat and started losing his hair.
But now Guns N' Roses were back — or at least Rose and the previously under-heralded keyboard/conga player Dizzy Reed were — and had even played a well-received warm-up gig at the House of Blues in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve. The new group was scheduled to take the Rock in Rio stage in the early hours of Monday morning — 1:40 a.m., to be precise — but by 1:35, there was still no sight of them backstage (punctuality was never a GN'R hallmark), and out front, a sprawling crowd of 190,000 people, earlier primed by two powerful sets by Papa Roach and Oasis, but weary after an hour-long wait in darkness and silence, was beginning to grow restive. Then, in the backstage area — essentially a jerry-built clapboard dressing-room complex fronting a gravel parking lot still lightly puddled by an afternoon rain shower — a tribe of burly security guards began sweeping away un-credentialed idlers with a snarling insistence rarely seen since the heyday of such preshow prima
donnas as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.
Down at the end of a long road leading from a nearby helicopter landing pad, a constellation of headlights suddenly blossomed in the tropical night. Three dark vans, attended by a swarm of motorcycle-mounted Brazilian cops, pulled into the parking lot, disgorging the unmistakable, lanky figure of Axl Rose (not fat, not bald), who marched straight up some steps and into a dressing room. He was followed by a very strange figure in a white, Jason-style hockey mask, wearing an inverted cardboard fried-chicken bucket on his head, and by an equally surreal Goth-type character who looked somewhat the way Marilyn Manson might, if Manson's lifeless corpse had been left overnight in a roomful of famished rats. The four other members of the band followed them into the dressing room and closed the door.
At 1:55, the dimmed lights on the airplane-hangar-size Rock in Rio stage died down completely, and a giant video screen on the back wall flickered to life, bearing the words "W. Axl Rose in 'A Sorta Kinda Wonderful Life.' " There followed an extremely weird animated film depicting a cartoon Axl — his toe- and fingernails grown to eccentric length, apparently on the model of the late, whacked-out billionaire Howard Hughes. He appeared to be confined to a sanitarium of some sort, and was seen to be peeing into a plastic urine-sample cup, calling for a bedpan, and then wiping his nether parts with a page ripped from a copy of Rolling Drone magazine. A cartoon night nurse appeared, straight out of an ancient porn scenario, complete with big breasts and black fishnet stockings, bearing a syringe the size of a bazooka, at which point the cartoon Axl (or "Uncle Axl," as he called himself, in a voice that could only have been Rose's own) advised the no-doubt-puzzled Brazilian crowd
that "Things go better with Diet Coke."
The bizarre minifilm ended, and all across the stage, howling pyro fireballs suddenly erupted into the pitch-black night, accompanied by a soaring, air-raid-siren guitar note. The stage lights slammed on, and there they all were — the new Guns N' Roses — ripping into "Welcome to the Jungle" as if they'd just written it a little earlier in the day.
About 10 minutes into their set, it became clear that the new GN'R is a rock and roll event of the sort that a lot of people (well, me, anyway) have been waiting for for a long, long time. Where the reigning rap-metal acts of the moment — Korn and Limp Bizkit and their ilk — get over quite successfully on murk and muscle and pure sonic wallop, the new GN'R — with only one-month's worth of rehearsal (this was their second gig) — already played with a passion and precision that's unlikely to be matched in any other quarter anytime soon. The band's three lead guitarists were individually exhilarating, and perfectly balanced in their divergent styles. The underground avant-fusion virtuoso Buckethead (the guy in the disturbing Jason mask and the KFC container — he claims to have been raised by chickens), churned out everything from screaming blues leads to orchestrally echoplexed art-rock excursions to Chet Atkins-style chicken-picking forays (while film footage of doomed
chickens flashed across the video screen behind him). Across the stage, Robin Finck (the Manson-gnawed-by-rats figure, late of Nine Inch Nails and — a subject that remains to be explored — Cirque du Soleil) more than held his own in the noise-and-curious-charisma department. Between the two of them, normal-guy Paul Tobias — a childhood friend of Rose's from back in Indiana — anchored the guitar onslaught with a complementary style that was generally modest and accommodating, but very much his own. Solos never slipped into hard-rock cliché, but were instead constructed and deployed with a taste and level of invention rarely heard in this sort of music anymore. Rock guitar has a long and well-mined tradition by now, of course; but this trio of players, to their considerable credit, were often able to make all the old thrills seem new again.
Most of the rampaging, 90-minute set, however, was filled with old GN'R material: "Sweet Child o' Mine," "Mr. Brownstone," the famous Axl-at-the-piano opus "November Rain," the still-lilting Dylan cover "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and the sledgehammer set-ender, "Paradise City." This was no oldies show, though; as Rose himself proudly noted at one point: "This new band can play the f--- out of these songs." Indeed they could. Former Primus drummer Brian "Brain" Mantia and ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson (adding possible teen appeal in red knee pants and suspenders) shoveled out truckloads of bottom, and two keyboardists — Dizzy Reed and Tool associate Chris Pittman — slathered the sound with rich layers of electronic detail.
The unmistakable center of the show, though, was Axl Rose. At 38, he remains one of the great can't-take-your-eyes-off-him rock stars, twirling back and forth across the stage (and, rather uncharacteristically, racing out into the audience, too), pausing only to lean back and emit a proverbial banshee wail of the sort that probably occurs to past masters such as Robert Plant these days only in their dreams. He was also extremely talkative, taking time out to berate his long-gone former Guns N' Roses colleagues (for trying to derail his dream or something, apparently), to gently chide local Latin American rock critics (by name!) for not knowing what the f--- they were talking about, and — totally out of the blue — to quietly urge a nonviolent resolution of the soccer violence that has long plagued relations between Brazil and its equally sports-mad neighbor, Argentina. Judging by some of the images flashing across the onstage screen, he also retains a knowing eye for vintage (and
fairly hard-core) bondage and S&M footage.
So it was an exciting show — not only for the unusually high level of musicianship, but also for the unflagging spirit and intelligence of the music itself, and what that seems to promise for the future. There really is a new Guns N' Roses album in the pipeline. (Really.) It's called Chinese Democracy, and it should be out in the spring, summer, something like that. The band played four songs from it at Rio. One of them, a gorgeous piece called "Madagascar," recalled nothing so much as the mid-period Beatles, with all their quaint little horn ornamentations. It also sampled the voice of the great, slain civil rights hero Martin Luther King. (Rose, who definitely runs this show, further illustrated the song's intentions onstage with footage of King, and of the turbulent civil-rights protests of the 1960s.)
When the album comes out, pray for a tour. And definitely don't miss it.
For much more on Axl Rose, be sure to check out "Axl Rose: A Conversation With Kurt Loder".