Brawls, leather, and $35 T-shirts: What more could you expect from a Guns N’ Roses show at the Oracle Arena? Certainly not that the resurrected group would rock as hard as it did. The band has done nothing but plant itself firmly on the butt of a giant joke through the interminably delayed release of Chinese Democracy. And Axl Rose, the only remaining original member, made headlines recently for the rude move of booting the talented Eagles of Death Metal from the current tour. Even diehard fans must’ve admitted expectations were modest going into the night.
Six hours and 45 minutes later, when the packed concert finally let out at 2:45 a.m., it was a different story. Axl and his new crew of seven musicians — including one guy on bongos and three lead guitarists needed to take Slash’s place — worked the Roses catalogue from every angle. Skeptics at 8 p.m. were surely singing “Live and Let Die,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and “November Rain” as they emerged into the cold and dark Oakland night after GN’R’s two-plus hours onstage. Any lingering tension from a series of fights on the floor during the break between Guns N’ Roses and opener Sebastian Bach had long since evolved to joy.
Axl’s voice may not be as strong as it was at the band’s peak fifteen years ago, but he can still dance, and all his trademark moves came out to play. Wearing jeans and a black leather shirt, his red hair tied back in tight cornrows, he disguised his age well. Let’s not mince words: Backed by a stable of able musicians, including bassist Tommy Stinson of the Replacements and drummer Lars Ulrich of Metallica, who made a one-song guest appearance, all Axl had to do was sell Guns N’ Roses’ many hits. And that he did. Three video screens, pyrotechnics (whose heat blasts could be felt a hundred feet away), and an impressive lights display added to the arena rock spectacle. Instrumental covers of Jimi Hendrix’ “Angel” and the Rolling Stones’ “Angie” rounded off the set with a touch of old-fashioned integrity.
The same points that illustrate GN’R’s success highlight Sebastian Bach‘s shortcomings. The former lead singer of early-’90s hair-metal group Skid Row couldn’t help but appear nostalgic for his former glory. Decked out in leather pants with a lace-up fly and a leather vest with a plunging neckline, and still rocking the long, blonde hair he wore in the early ’90s, Bach looked far older than Axl Rose (though to his credit, he’s managed to put out a new album this decade). Lead guitarist Metal Mike Chlasciak only made the aging rocker image worse with his long, thinning brown hair, monster goatee, faded snake tattoos, and fondness for Flying-V guitars.
But nothing could change the fact that Bach’s material just wasn’t that strong. While old-school Skid Row songs like “Monkey Business,” “I Remember You,” and “Youth Gone Wild” (which had Bach pointing to a tattoo of the same words on his forearm) stirred the crowd, nothing else left even a temporary impression. Bach’s over-the-top vocal delivery, persistent mic-swirling, and one-foot-on-a-stage-monitor posturing doesn’t carry the weight it once did. The set smacked of shtick and faded to irrelevance once it was over. Guns N’ Roses, on the other hand, managed to remind us all of the timelessness of rock ‘n’ roll.