Lose Your Illusion

November 20, 2002


The last two weeks have seen the highly anticipated return to the Chicago stage by two artists who've been missing in action for 10 years. But where Peter Gabriel came back with a show that underscored his enduring brilliance, Axl Rose offered much less.

Rose and his almost entirely reconfigured Guns N' Roses pulled into a packed Allstate Arena on Monday night. But it's hard to say that it was worth the wait-either since the band's last album and local performance, or the typically long and thoughtless delay that preceded Rose's eventual appearance on stage two and a half hours after the posted start time.

There's no denying that Guns N' Roses defined mainstream rock in the mid-'80s, and it stands as one of the most important bands of the pre-alternative era. Yet the group's infamously mercurial lead singer (a self-important "artiste" if ever there was one) remains tethered to those times, with a new group that is best described as a passable Guns cover band, a smattering of new songs that add nothing to the legacy of tuneful, glam-leaning hard rock, and a set list that was heavy on material from 1987's "Appetite for Destruction."

Rose faced several hurtles even before he finally deigned to show himself. (And Chicago's 10 p.m. start was [ital] early [ital] compared to the union-defying set times in other cities on this tour.) For one thing, even the most devoted fan had to be suspect of him calling this group Guns N' Roses.

The Who is simply not the Who without Pete Townshend [ital] and [ital] Roger Daltrey. The Rolling Stones are not the Rolling Stones without Keith Richards [ital] and [ital] Mick Jagger. It is hard to justify Guns being Guns without lead guitarist Slash (or for that matter, rhythm guitarist and tunesmith Izzy Stradlin, who was always the band's secret weapon).

The purposely cartoonish new crew did their best. Psychedelic-leaning shred guitarist Buckethead (whose improvised Kentucky Fried Chicken chapeaux was a poor fashion substitute for Slash's old top hat) and glammed-out industrial noisemeister Robin Finck gamely traded solos, updating the old Guns sound for nu-metal ears (except during the really classic leads like "Sweet Child O' Mine," which they didn't dare alter).

Drummer Brian Mantia pounded away with arena-rattling aplomb, and Indiana homeboy Rose seemed to have genuinely bonded with Minneapolis-bred Tommy Stinson, though for anyone who ever loved the Replacements, the effect of seeing the punk-rock bassist covering Guns songs was akin to watching Charles Mingus jamming with N 'Sync.

But above and beyond any questions of authenticity were the hurdles of aging and nostalgia, those dreaded twin demons that plague much of rock 'n' roll.

Always a canny observer of pop trends, Rose knows that the Guns sound no longer rules rock, and a new generation of listeners likes its metal laced with hip-hop. He made a concession to this fact by having Beastie Boys DJ Mixmaster Mike play an hour-long opening set (following the wretchedly generic nu-metal band CKY) on the wheels of steel.

This was definitely [ital] not [ital] what the older Guns audience wanted. Mike was greeted with a sea of up-thrust fingers through most of his admittedly boring performance, and disinterested fans spent much of the set and the hour wait that followed amusing themselves by starting fist fights or watching the Bears game in the arena lobby.

When Guns took the stage amid the expected fireworks and pyro explosions, the jersey-clad Rose darted about with athletic vigor, and he still did his awkward frat-boy shuffle dance with the same misguided enthusiasm that he always showed. But while it was better than it was during his inaugural re-appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards in late August, his voice was still considerably weaker and more limited than it was during the band's heyday.

The vocals were often mixed below the guitars (never a good sign in a band led by the singer) and the dreadlocked Rose clearly benefited from electronic augmentation at the mixing board during the ear-piercing screams on songs such as "Live and Let Die."

The old man also relied on several giant video monitors scattered about the stage to feed him the lyrics. (Jeez, Axl, you've had nothing to do for the last 10 years. You couldn't have spent the time re-learning those "classic" lyrics to "Mr. Brownstone"? And do you really need prompting to remember "Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door"?)

Most troublesome of all was the fact that Rose still has not learned that Guns N' Roses was always at its best when it was moving quickest and hitting hardest. The set bogged down for three or four long, soggy, and self-indulgent power ballads just when it should have been building to a climax. When Axl sits at the grand piano, you know it's time to run for a beer.

To be fair, the new millennial Guns N' Roses can't be entirely written off until Rose finally delivers the long-threatened new album "Chinese Democracy" (if indeed it ever appears). But Monday's show at the Allstate Arena didn't offer much hope for the band reclaiming the commercial prominence or the artistic peaks it once achieved.