Frank Ferrer

REVIEW: Guns N’ Roses – Hard Skool (2022 Nightrain club clear 7″)

GUNS N’ ROSES – Hard Skool (2022 Geffen 7″ Nightrain club clear vinyl EP)

Back in February, Guns N’ Roses released the Hard Skool EP (or single, or whatever!), containing the first two new Guns songs since 2008’s Chinese Democracy.  With five tracks total (two studio, three live) over three separate formats (CD, cassette, 7″), it was already a pretty good listen.  Axl’s voice has adapted to singing these demanding songs, 35 years after.  But there was always the promise of more in June 2022, and now it has come.

Members of the Guns N’ Roses Nightrain club received a brand new Hard Skool release on clear vinyl, with one exclusive live track added.  The cover art colour has been changed from red to dark charcoal grey, and a “Nightrain Limited-Edition Clear” notation has been added to the front.  This wasn’t cheap, costing $60 Canadian ($45 US) dollars to join.  There are other perks but really, the truth of the matter is I paid $60 for one song.

They had better not reissue this track!

The new exclusive song is “Shadow Of Your Love”, a recent live version recorded with Axl, Slash, Duff, Dizzy Reed, Richard Fortus, Frank Ferrer, and Melissa Reese.  If you cast your minds back to the recent Appetite For Destruction super deluxe edition, “Shadow Of Your Love” was released as a single and it got a bit of airplay.  Live with the new version of the band, it does recapture that Appetite vibe and let’s face it, the song was possibly superior to a couple tunes that did make the final album.  You can hear Melissa on backing vocals, a touch that isn’t on early live versions of the song.  That backing vocal part is present on the studio version from the third disc on the Appetite box, but not the others included.  It’s cool that they’ve brought it back.  This version is just as fast as the old ones too.  It’s awesome to hear Frank Ferrer playing the drum part originally recorded by Steven Adler.  As for Axl, he adapts.  This is one of the most high and raspy of the original Guns repertoire.  Axl delivers it smooth without the rasp and still manages to get his voice way, way up there.  Say what you want about Axl Rose, he’s sounding better than many of his contemporaries.  Of course the real treat is just hearing Slash wail on it, as he should.

As for the other songs on the single; we’ve discussed them before so we won’t spend much more time on them.  “Hard Skool” is a Chinese Democracy outtake that has been reworked with Slash and Duff McKagan.  The duo have writing credits on “Hard Skool” along with Axl Rose and former members Robin Finck, Josh Freese, Tommy Stinson and Paul “Huge” Tobias.  Formerly known as “Jackie Chan”, this song comes closest to capturing the classic Guns vibe – think Illusions era GN’R.  Slash imbues the riff with his trademark snakelike style, and Axl is in full-scream mode on the powerful chorus.  The cowbell brings us back to the 80s a bit, but the experimental solo section is more modern.  The other new/old song “ABSUЯD” is much more Chi-Dem, and more divisize.  Formerly known as “Silkworms”, Guns started playing “ABSUЯD” live after a 20 year absence last year as a surprise.  Axl’s voice is pretty strange here, sounding a bit muppet-ish.  (The screaming portion sounds like tape.)  This live track will take some getting used to.  It’s not that Axl’s voice is bad just…different than what you’re used to.

Both vinyl releases came with a sticker.  This fan club edition also comes with a Nightrain 2022 pin.  The pin comes packaged in a little mini-folder.  It is made of metal and heavy for a pin.  Made for a jacket, not a shirt.  For a higher tier, you could sign up for four pins and a hoodie.  But I really only wanted to shell out for the exclusive track.

You can’t blame Axl for wanting to get some of these old songs out since he laboured for years over them.  It’s fitting that only now with Slash and Duff back in the band, the songs are “finished”.  Keep the releases coming guys.  It doesn’t have to be an album.  It just has to be Guns.

4/5 stars

All cautions made
Every chance was given
No effort spared to save what we had
All in good faith
I would not hesitate
To extend myself and lend you my hand

But you had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

As tempers fade
And lies forgiven
No cause embraced could break what we had
In its place
A storm is lifting
I would’ve thought you could be more of a man

But you had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

But you had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

You had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

You had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

REVIEW: Guns N’ Roses – Hard Skool (2022 CD, cassette, 7″ vinyl)

GUNS N’ ROSES – Hard Skool (2022 Universal CD, cassette, 7″ vinyl EP)

The first new physical music from Guns N’ Roses since 2008’s Chinese Democracy has finally arrived in the form of an EP!  Good enough; we’ll take it.  Beggars (and hangers-on) cannot be choosers.  Considering how scarce new Guns music has been since the early 90s, the new Hard Skool EP almost feels like manna from the gods.

There are six tracks in total spread over multiple formats:  two new studio songs, and four live.  The last of the live songs, “Shadow Of Your Love”, shipped in June 2022 on a club-only clear 7″.  The other five tracks are all here.

To the disappointment of some, the two new songs are slightly old:  Chinese Democracy outtakes that have been reworked with Slash and Duff McKagan.  The duo have writing credits on “Hard Skool” along with Axl Rose and former members Robin Finck, Josh Freese, Tommy Stinson and Paul “Huge” Tobias.  Formerly known as “Jackie Chan”, this song comes closest to capturing the classic Guns vibe – think Illusions era GN’R.  Slash imbues the riff with his trademark snakelike style, and Axl is in full-scream mode on the powerful chorus.  The cowbell brings us back to the 80s a bit, but the experimental solo section is more modern.

The other new/old song “ABSUЯD” is much more Chi-Dem, and more divisize.  Formerly known as “Silkworms”, it was largely enjoyed by those who knew it from live bootlegs but thought it should have been on the album.  The keyboard intro has been axed, the riff emphasized and the lyrics slightly modified.  The main hook “What can I do, with a bitch like you?” has been replaced with a refrain of “Absurd!” The words are otherwise just as angry.  “Listen motherfuckers to the song that should be heard!” bellows Axl on the opening line.  “Parasitic demons sucking acid through your heart!”  I wonder who this was written about?  Vocally, Axl’s in the faux accent he utilized on “Down on the Farm” and you’ll love it or hate it.  Interestingly former keyboardist Chris Pitman, who was credited with songwriting on the original “Silkworms” version, no longer has a credit.  It is now credited to Axl, Slash, Duff and Dizzy.  Presumably the Pitman parts were chopped.  At the time of its writing, Pitman said: “It ended up being this incredible track that sounded like Guns N’ Roses 10 or 15 years in the future. It was so far removed from our other songs that we had to put it in this other place. Concept-wise, it didn’t fit with Chinese Democracy. We hope we will have other songs that match that kind of futuristic sound. It’s a really exciting track because it morphs into this crazy sound, but it was out so much in the other direction that we have to let time catch up with it.”  While that was true of “Silkworms”, the version known as “ABSUЯD” is more guitar-oriented.

The live songs commence with “Don’t Cry”.  Slash and rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus sound great together on this, but Axl struggles when the singing gets high at the end.  It’s a demanding song, and 1991 was a long time ago.  “You’re Crazy” on the other hand is really good.  Using the slower Lies arrangement, but played on electric, this version is like brand new.  A real cool addition to your GN’R library.

The third live track is exclusive to the 7″ vinyl:  “ABSUЯD”.  Not only do we get new songs on this EP, but we already get one in a live version.  Guns started playing “ABSUЯD” live in 2021 as a surprise before it was released on iTunes.  Axl’s voice is pretty strange here, sounding a bit muppet-ish.  (The screaming portion sounds like tape.)  This live track will take some getting used to.  It’s not that Axl’s voice is bad just…different than what you’re used to.

The 7″ vinyl came with a sticker while the cassette and CD versions come with no extras.  The CD is packed in a slipcase, and the cassette in a cassingle cardboard sleeve.  This got crushed a bit in the mail; a jewel case would have been better.

Completing this tracklist is “Shadow Of Your Love (Live)” on an additional 7″ single, available only by joining a “Nightrain” membership on the official site.  The cheaper of the pricey packages gives you access to the usual online perks such as pre-sale tickets, but your only physical merchandise is the vinyl, a sticker, and a pin.

The cover artwork includes an interesting visual clue.  On a school locker door, the classic Guns N’ Roses logo is stickered overtop a graffiti style logo reminiscent of Chinese Democracy.  Almost a metaphor for what these new songs are.

It’s encouraging that Guns N’ Roses have finally released something new, even if the songs are just reworked tunes from 20+ years ago.  Perhaps they’re clearing the decks before working on truly new material.  It’s all but certain that we will see more, and hopefully a longer release next time.  While some moments on the live tunes are shaky, and the new tunes were not as warmly received by some, the Hard Skool EP is wonderful to hold in hand.  New physical music from GN’R!  About time.

4/5 stars

All cautions made
Every chance was given
No effort spared to save what we had
All in good faith
I would not hesitate
To extend myself and lend you my hand

But you had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

As tempers fade
And lies forgiven
No cause embraced could break what we had
In its place
A storm is lifting
I would’ve thought you could be more of a man

But you had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

But you had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

You had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

You had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

REVIEW: Guns N’ Roses – “ABSUЯD” (2021 single)

GUNS N’ ROSES – “ABSUЯD” (2021 single)

“Listen motherfuckers to the song that should be heard!” bellows W. Axl Rose, cocky as ever.

Guns N’ Roses like to drop bombshells and they did this week when “Silkworms” returned to the setlist after an absence of almost two decades.  It had been reworked and retitled “Absurd”, now augmented with Slash n’ Duff’s involvement.  In another surprise bombshell, they just released a studio version.  The first new Guns N’ Roses music since Chinese Democracy and first with Slash and Duff since 1994.

“Silkworms” is am interesting choice to release as the first new song with the old legends back in the band.  It’s always going to be associated with the Chi-Dem era.  The version I knew had Robin Finck and Buckethead on guitar.  Brain on drums.  Tommy Stinson on bass.  A lot has changed!  Slash is audible but more Slash-y sounds would be have appreciated.  Duff sounds brilliant.  Why not an actual new song?  I don’t know…but at the same time, I’m glad “Silkworms” finally got a release as “Absurd”.  It was always deserving of a proper studio release.

Axl sings in that punky “Down on the Farm” character, and the lyrics are as venomous as they were in 2001.  “Parasitic demons sucking acid through your heart!”  He sounds quite good; better than the concert versions we’ve heard thus far.  The vocal is mixed to sound like a megaphone because, hey, it was the Chi-Dem era.  There’s a disorienting quiet section in the middle that also hearkens back to that quaint time.

Good tune, but those of us who have craved “Silkworms” for 20 years are biased to a good impression.  Those who didn’t like it won’t be turned, and those who want something more like Appetite and Illusions won’t get it this time.  If you love Chinese Democracy, add a mark to my score.  If you hate it, subtract one or two based on your level of venom.

4/5 stars

#798: Chinese Democracy

A sequel to Record Store Tales Part 285: Chinese Democracy

GETTING MORE TALE #798: Chinese Democracy

I met Thussy back in 2007.  He joined the team at work and we became friends immediately.  We liked the same stuff.  Trailer Park Boys, Guns N’ Roses, comedy.  He is responsible for getting me into Super Troopers, which admittedly took a couple tries.  We were also both getting married around the same time, so we had similar complaints and gripes to talk about.  Drama with bridesmaids and seating plans, egads.

Thuss is a gamer, and we enjoyed chatting games.  Axl Rose did a voice (a radio DJ) in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.  You could switch between stations, and if you chose the rock station you got Axl.  It was one of the few things Axl did that was released during that long dry spell between albums.  Of course, this led to ample discussions of Chinese Democracy.

“It’s never coming out,” Chris insisted.  I hated to say he was right, but it sure seemed that way.  He refused to back down on his position.  We’d been fucked with by this band for so long.  Guns had missed several release dates, so many that it had become a joke.  Axl chewed up managers and spat them out like stale bubblegum.  Then the Dr. Pepper soda company offered to buy a Dr. Pepper for everyone in America if Axl managed to make his 2008 release date.  Axl seemed good-naturedly amused by the idea, offering to share his Dr. Pepper with Buckethead when the album comes out.  (This because Dr. Pepper said the only Americans exempt from this offer were former Guns members Buckethead and Slash!)

On October 22 2008, I was working at my desk, listening to the radio when the DJ, Carlos Benevides, announced that they would shortly be playing a brand new single by Guns N’ Roses.  It was the title track, a song both Thuss and I were already familiar with.  He had a disc of rough mixes for many of the tracks, and I had the Rock In Rio bootleg CD set.  We already knew half the new songs, and “Chinese Democracy” was a track I thought smoked.  I called Thuss and he listened in as it played.

It sounded like shit on our little mono telephone speakers, but we were listening to brand new Guns!  The overall listener reaction was mixed to negative, but I already loved it.  “The album’s never coming out,” said Thuss.

“It has to, now.  There’s a single out.  It’s definitely coming.”

“No.”  Thuss was insistent.  “It’s never coming out.”

“But Dr. Pepper…” I began before being cut off.

“No.  Not coming out.  Never.”

The funny thing was, “Chinese Democracy” wasn’t actually the first song released from the album.  A month earlier, “Shackler’s Revenge” became the first new Guns song in nine years, when it was released as part of the Rock Band 2 video game, which neither of us had.

A new release date of November 23 was announced.  “Nope,” said Thuss.  “Nothing is coming out on November 23.”  It was, strangely, a Sunday.  Generally, nothing came out on Sundays.  It was absolutely an odd move that did throw the whole release into question for some.

I asked ye olde Record Store to hold a copy for me.  “Do you want vinyl?” he asked.  “No, just CD.”  It was something I’d regret, when he sold out of the vinyl a week later.  I emailed to ask if he had any left.  “Do you remember me asking you if you wanted vinyl?” he scolded.  “Yeah,” I sulked.

When I walked into the store on November 23 and was handed my precious copy of Chinese Democracy, it was so anticlimactic.  There it is.  It’s in your hands, the culmination of a decade and a half’s work.  You’ve been waiting all this time for this album, and there it sits.  An album that had “release dates” going back to 1995 and every single year since.  Then, you witness Guns return to the live stage from their cocoon, different but recognizable.  You watch them struggle to establish a lineup, and you hear rumour after rumour about song titles and release dates.  Then you’re holding a CD in your hands, a pitiful little plastic case with a little paper cover inside.  You hand the guy your debit card, he rings it in.  Transaction approved, you are handed your receipt.  Chinese Democracy goes into a little plastic bag.  Even though it’s probably the most expensive and longest gestating album of all time, your little plastic bag weighs the same as if you bought Sex Pistols.

At least I’d be able to show it to Thuss.  Monday the 24th rolled around.

“It came out.  I have it,” I told him as I strolled into his office.

“No it didn’t.  It never came out.  It’s never coming out.” He was sticking to his story come hell or high water!

“Yes it did! It’s in my car right now!  I’ll show it to you.”

“You have nothing,” he responded, refusing to come and look.

In the years since, Thuss has stubbornly stuck to his guns and his believe that Chinese Democracy has never come out.  “I have the unreleased mixes,” he says.  “That’s all there is.”


I emailed him to tell him I was writing this story, our tale of the time Chinese Democracy was released.

“So you are going to take a crack at some fictional writing…nice.”

I will never win this one!

So now I have two stories both titled “Chinese Democracy”.  I say, why not?  Peter Gabriel has three self-titled albums.

REVIEW Round-up: Guns N’ Roses “Not In This Lifetime” Tour (Guest editorial)

GUNS N’ ROSES “Not In This Lifetime” Tour

By David Martin

A little while ago we reached back to the late-‘80s with a review of a Guns N’ Roses live session in New York. It wasn’t a perfect recording, but it’s a nice glance back to the early days of a band that’s become one of rock’s truly iconic groups. Another interesting thing about looking back at this time is that Guns N’ Roses has, against the odds, become something of a modern sensation.

Our first hints ought to have been when GNR started showing up anew in non-music pop culture. The band put out a vague teaser trailer before screenings of Star Wars: The Force Awakens for instance, and also partnered with an online developer to produce a video game in 2016. The latter was particularly random, though it makes sense when you look at the industry. An Australian gaming resource site states simply that presentation is a huge factor on betting and gaming sites, and part of that means introducing visually and sonically interesting games – like a slot reel based on an iconic rock band, in this case.

Neither a teaser trailer nor a video game tipped us off to what would actually start in the spring of 2016 – one of the most surprising tours, arguably in all of musical history. The band took the stage at Coachella – with Axl Rose and Slash sharing the stage for the first time in years – and kicked off an international slate of shows that ultimately extended into 2018. The tour, dubbed “Not In This Lifetime,” has become one of the most successful in modern history from a financial standpoint. And while reviewing it in its entirety isn’t easy (or necessarily possible) we can look at a roundup of reviews for particular shows along the way.

Coachella (April ’16) – “The magic was absent.” This was a take from Vice, building on a headline suggesting that Guns N’ Roses had shown its age at the Coachella show. The review noted hints of pleasure when the band played the hits, as well as Slash’s enduring skill, but ultimately pointed to a lack of chemistry and the simple ravages of time as reasons for an underwhelming reunion.

Detroit (June ’16) – “This was history being made.” This comment came from none other than Rolling Stone, in a piece that directly refuted some of the earlier reviews. Citing a straightened out lineup and an Axl Rose out of the foot cast he’d appeared in for Coachella, it painted the picture of a reunion tour that had found its groove.

London (June ’17) – “You can’t blow the roof off a stadium that doesn’t have one, but they damn well tried.” So said The Guardian after one of GNR’s European shows, painting a picture not only of an electric performance, but of the thrill for an original fan seeing the band back in action again.

Cleveland (October ’17) – “Guns N’ Roses have no intention of coasting to the finish line.” This was a take offered on one of the tour’s later dates. Not only was it yet another positive review, but it was one with the perspective to mention the almost universally positive response to the tour – as well as growing hopes of fresh material from the group.

All in all the impression left by the “Not In This Lifetime” tour is that while there are occasional frustrations stemming from the simple fact that the band’s members have aged, it’s been good to have them back. And on some occasions, they’ve absolutely wowed all their old fans.

 

#460: Appetite for Reunions

GETTING MORE TALE #460: Appetite for Reunions

Unless you have been living under a pile of rock (and roll), then you know that the hype machine for a 2016 Guns N’ Roses “reunion” has already begun.

But this is not a reunion.  This is not Axl, Slash, Duff, Izzy, and Steven.  Matt Sorum is not involved, nor is Gilby Clarke.  The new lineup is supposed to consist of:  W. Axl Rose, Slash, Duff “Rose” McKagan, Richard Fortus, Frank Ferrer, Dizzy Reed, and Chris Pittman, with new member Dave Kushner (Velvet Revolver) in the third guitar slot.

Of course, many lineups labelled as “reunions” in the past were not.  Van Halen’s current “reunited” lineup consists of three classic members and one new guy, Wolfgang Van Halen.  Any time The Who go out there for a tour, there are only two original members.  Not much can be done about that, with Keith and John both gone.  Not that it matters since both bands have made millions on these tours, and both bands even managed to put out new albums, without the full original lineups.  New music always trumps a tour.

Few bands seem to reunite with all the beloved members intact, either due to death or stubbornness.  There are exceptions, obviously.  The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac came together with their most beloved lineups, and a tremendous amount of success, but even they couldn’t make it last.  Don Felder was fired from the Eagles years ago.  Christine McVie only recently returned to the Mac after being gone for ages, and meanwhile the band did a new album without her.   And Black Sabbath?  Their farewell tour only has ¾ of the original lineup!  Meanwhile Bill Ward sits at home, having alienated the band and Sharon Osbourne.  The chances of Ward ever playing drums again in the band he co-founded are slim to none.  One does not piss off the Osbourne camp without consequences.  Regardless of his reasons, justified or not, a Black Sabbath farewell tour without its still capable original drummer is a hollow thing indeed.

Even when you do get the full original lineup of a band that you wanted, that doesn’t necessarily mean the band is returning to full functionality.  When Kiss reunited in 1996 with the full original band, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss were hired hands.  They didn’t get a say, they didn’t get a vote.  They got a contract stating their responsibilities and compensation.  As if Paul and Gene would ever give up any control in their band, now!  So what we saw live was Kiss, but what we got behind the scenes and on the album Psycho-Circus was just “more of the same”.  Ace and Peter didn’t even appear on many of the songs, even though they were on the album cover.  But that’s nothing new for Kiss!

What band has had the most successful reunion?  I’m not talking in terms of numbers; then we would probably have to include Spice Girls and New Kids on the Block.  Who has had the most success in terms of quality?  That would have to be Iron Maiden.

Steve Harris did something very creative when he reunited with Bruce Dickinson.  Instead of just bringing Bruce back into the band, he also brought in Bruce’s guitarist and former Maiden member Adrian Smith.  But Adrian was not cool with coming in to replace somebody else.  “What about Janick Gers?” he asked.  Janick had been in Maiden for a successful decade, and Adrian didn’t want him out of a job.  Steve always envisioned a three-guitar Iron Maiden, and Adrian Smith coming back gave him that opportunity.  It worked out brilliantly, especially live, when it could have been a train wreck.  Technically, what Iron Maiden did is the same thing Guns N’ Roses are said to be doing:  a new version of the band, with both classic and current members.  Maiden made it last, too.  Harris was very clear with Bruce:  nobody was coming back to Maiden just to hang around a while and leave again.  Anybody coming back to Maiden was coming back for life, and that is exactly what happened.  Five more studio albums later, Maiden rule absolutely.

What will happen with Guns N’ Roses?  That is harder to predict.  It is unlikely their most talented member, Izzy Stradlin, would want to return to the circus of insanity that is a GN’R tour.  As for Slash, he has always preferred a stripped down band.  It’s hard to imagine how he will be happy playing in a band with two keyboardists, but that’s what they say is happening.  How long will it last?  A few shows?  Coachella and gone?  Much like Ace Frehley, Slash will probably be a contracted musician.

A band of Guns’ stature all but had to reunite.  The fans have been loudly demanding something like this for over a decade.  The fans hoped Izzy and Steven Adler or Matt Sorum would be a part of it, but that has always seemed unlikely.  Slash couldn’t even get Izzy into Velvet Revolver.  What they are doing is probably the closest to a reunion that is likely.  Perhaps Izzy will show up to guest as he has in the past, but fans shouldn’t get their hopes up of seeing Adler on stage.

Perhaps this, the most anticipated “reunion” since Led Zeppelin (also a new lineup with Jason Bonham), will stop the constant questions from the media and fans.  “Will you ever get back together?”  It must be tiring answering that question daily, when you have new music out there to play.  Sometimes a band just has to give in and take a step backwards.  Sometimes, as in the case of Iron Maiden, the way forward is to go backwards.

Will it work?  The only way to find out is to stay tuned.  You know where you are?  You in the jungle, baby.

Let’s see if the bad boys of rock and roll can still survive the jungle.

GNR

DVD REVIEW: Guns N’ Roses – Live in Paradise City (2011)

GUNS N’ ROSES – Live in Paradise City (2011 Access All Areas DVD, from a television broadcast source)

Rock In Rio 4, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 2, 2011.  Guns N’ Roses headlining the final night.

Paddington Rose

Paddington Rose

Rio loves Guns N’ Roses!  Always did, still do.  It’s pouring rain, but the fans are present and accounted for.  Good thing they are able to see the huge stage through three massive video screens, otherwise I don’t know how they’d tell one member from another.  Well, Axl’s blinding yellow Paddington Bear coat makes him easy enough to see.

“Chinese Democracy” opens the set, with bassist Tommy Stinson handling the backup vocals on the chorus.  Ron Thal’s playing a double neck (the top one is fretless)  and is rocking the samurai hair.  The solo is played by DJ Ashba, with Thal handling the outro shredding.  “Good evening! Good morning!” says Axl after the first song, before asking, “Do you know where the fuck you are?”  Of course that means “Jungle” is next.  Axl’s voice just sounds shredded, as he struggles high and thin through the hard notes, no grit left intact.  Once in a while the old Axl wails, but he was really off in Rio.

IMG_20141122_181521

THAL-1138

One thing about Guns N’ Roses new vs. old:  The old band looked unified in image.  All of them looked like Hollywood dirtbags.  In this band, you have the glam looking DJ Ashba, Frank Ferrer who looks like a trucker, Axl with his pimpstache, and a guy in a Stormtrooper helmet.  Admittedly though, Tommy Stinson looks the part as the punk rock bass player, and he also fills Duff’s role as backup singer.

“It’s So Easy” is up third, top loading the setlist with some serious Appetite heavy hitters.  Ashba doesn’t quite nail the solo, but the band are as tight as the originals.  Keyboardist Dizzy Reed looks weird as hell just hitting a tamborine to this sledgehammer tune.  As for rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus (a dead ringer for Izzy Stradlin), he seems to literally attack his instrument with every strum; looks more like he’s punching them!   Another Appetite classic, “Mr. Brownstone” follows.  It is here that I miss Slash for the first time.  His playing on “Brownstone” was always so greasy; so perfect.  Ashba’s playing is a bit too sophisticated.

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Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal

A bloated looking Axl is accompanied by Ron Thal for the opening to “Sorry”, a slow grinder from Chinese Democracy.  This changes the pace of the set.  The song fails to connect.  It’s more expressive live, but not interesting enough.  Time to pee.  Axl then introduces Richard Fortus on guitar who plays some blazing fast licks.  It makes me wonder why the hell this guy doesn’t play more leads.  He’s insanely fast.  This turns into a bit of a band jam, including the James Bond theme.  That strategically merges into “Live and Let Die”, the McCartney original of which was of course the theme of the same titled Bond movie.  The stage has flame throwers blasting, and the crowd goes wild.  Axl’s changed out of the raincoat, now sporting black leather and doing his trademark spinny-spinny dance.

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Frank Ferrer

After a brief pause, Frank Ferrer begins the familiar drum beat that opens “Rocket Queen”.  The fans know it and scream in anticipation.  Unfortunately Axl’s thin voice fails to impress.  Fortus does impress, handling the slide guitar solo himself.  “This I Love” is the next song, and the first ballad of the evening.  Axl struggles a bit with the vocal before he finds his stride part way in.  The dual keyboard concept can be best heard here.  Dizzy plays the piano, while second keyboardist Chris Pitman plays the orchestral arrangement.  But let’s face it: “This I Love” will never replace “November Rain” or “Estranged” as a concert favourite.  It fills that same epic ballad role,  but it just ain’t classic.

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DJ Ashba

DJ Ashba takes the opening lead guitar on the next Guns N’ Roses jam.  I don’t recognize the tune, but it sounds like another soundtrack piece.  I’ve heard some journalists complain that Guns play too many solos from band members that nobody cares about.  They couldn’t be more wrong.  These players are good; very very good.  These instrumental sections, apart from giving Axl a chance to rest his voice, are a showcase for the guys in the band that, like it or not, happen to be Guns N’ Roses.  The fans in Rio treat the members as if they were the originals.

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So once again, Jones, what was briefly yours is now mine.

Ashba breaks into the “Sweet Child O’ Mine” intro, and the fans lose their collective minds.  Rose dons a tan fedora, now looking a bit like René Belloq.  Thal nails that unforgettable wah-wah solo, no mean feat.  But then it’s time for “Estranged”, and Axl just can’t find the key. He pulls it together on the first verse, but this isn’t an easy song.  It does eventually fall into place with the help of some epic soloing.

I would say that the song “Better” from Chinese Democracy is well overdue in the set.  While undoubtedly modern sounding, I think it’s one of the best tunes.  It gives the band a chance to play around with a different kind of heavy.  Bumblefoot Thal plays the fast shreddy guitar part and does backing vocals.

Axl then introduces the band, aside from Bumblefoot and Ashba:

  • Chris “Mothergoose” Pitman
  • Frank “Thunderchucker” Ferrer (“I can never say that last name right. It’s like Ferarri, only different.” — Axl)
  • Mr. Richard Fortus (no nickname)
  • Mr. Tommy Stinson (also no nickname)
  • Mr. Dizzy Reed (I guess his nickname is Dizzy?)

This leads into a Dizzy piano segue on The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly”, as an intro to “Street of Dreams”.  I had made no secret of my love for this song.  I first heard it back in 2001, when Guns played Rio that year.  It was known as “The Blues” at the time.  It’s a concise version of the “epic Guns ballad” and it stands up on its own.  Then it’s time for “You Could Be Mine”.  Ferrer impressively nails the drum intro, and Thal plays the opening guitar moans on his fretless neck.  This great version is followed by Axl sitting at the piano himself, for…you got it…”November Rain”.  There are some sour moments, not least of which is Axl forgetting some of the words!

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Bumblefoot

Finally it’s time for one of my favourite moments of the set: Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal’s rendition of the “Pink Panther” theme (Henry Mancini) on double neck guitar.  It’s familiar melodies like this that keep the solo spots interesting to fans who don’t know the players all that well.  It’s easier for them to swallow.  It’s not like Axl is leaving the stage for some guy to go wheedle-wheedle-wheedle for four and a half minutes.  Guns give you quality for your time.

“Pink Panther” turns into a space age blues jam and back again, merging into “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”.  Axl sings this annoyingly nasal.  I will take this moment to point out the irritating habit of the camera to focus on a guitar player who is not the current soloist.  It’s Ashba playing these solos, but half the time the camera is on Fortus, as if they are not sure who is playing, so they guess.  Fortus does get to blaze a solo at the end, thankfully with the camera on him.  Axl playfully quotes Elmer Fudd:  “Be vewy vewy quiet!  I’m hunting wabbits!”  Why, I don’t know.  Maybe he was watching cartoons on the plane.  It’s as good an answer as any.

The main set closes with “Nightrain”, bringing it all back full circle to Appetite again.  In a cool moment, Ashba walks (with security personnel by his side) through a barricaded and secured pathway within the crowd.  “Nightrain” is a strong finish for a band that plays as long and hard as Guns N’ Roses play.  And soon they’re back on stage, acoustic guitars in hand, to play “Patience”.  The quiet tune is all but drowned out by thousands of screaming Brazilians, but even they cannot drown out “Paradise City”.  It’s a natural epic closer, and it’s perfectly awesome, right up until Axl leaves the stage…then the video and audio abruptly fade and that’s the end! Was the broadcast cut off?  I don’t know, but the end jam is cut out, as is the final bow.  That’s it that’s all.

Shoddy.  You can tell it’s not an official release.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy (2008)

By request of reader Johnny Sixx: A review of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy so long that I split it into two installments. For the first part, click here.

GUNS N’ ROSES – Chinese Democracy (2008 Geffen)

Chinese Democracy, over a decade in the making, became both the biggest joke in rock and the most anticipated album of all time. It polarized music fans as expected. Was it worth the wait? That’s a pretty hard question to quantify. Ultimately it’s up to the individual. Did I expect more, personally?

No. I didn’t expect more. I got what I expected. I did hope for more, but by and large I was very happy with Chinese Democracy.

My first exposure to these songs came in 2001, after the Rock In Rio concert. I downloaded all the new tunes from Limewire. (Remember Limewire?) My favourite of the new tunes was “The Blues” (later renamed “Street of Dreams”) but I also loved “Chinese Democracy”, “Madagascar” and a track called “Silkworms”. Those of us who had heard the songs in advance of the album release were much more likely to enjoy the new GN’R for what it is: Axl attempting to keep the GN’R name going, and stay current. For better or for worse.

For Axl, staying current meant incorporating more electronics. It also meant replacing feel-based guitar players like Slash with shredders.  No, this does not sound like the dirty, blues-based majesty of Appetite. Yet, it does rock. Hard. Add in some samples, lush ballads and some cool lyrics and we have a modern followup to Use Your Illusion I and II. It has the same diversity and experimental bent, even if it sounds nothing like those two albums.

I won’t sit here and defend Axl’s decision to keep going with the name, that’s a dead horse that’s been flogged over and over again. It is what it is, and at least Axl has chosen musicians that are at the top of their fields. The Rock In Rio lineup was already long gone by the time of this album release, but all those guys contributed to Chinese Democracy. That means you will hear guitar solos by ex-members Robin Finck (an underrated player) and the incredible Buckethead. You will also hear drums by Brain, and Frank Ferrer too. You will have contributions from everybody. Hell, you will even get one song that dates back to the Slash n’ Duff years called “This I Love”, another epic ballad. It was written way back in 1993; it’s most likely the oldest song here.

The album is chock full of riffage. The title track itself (written by Axl and ex-drummer Josh Freese, yes that Josh Freese) is a monster. That riff is infectious, as are the verses. Axl loads the whole album full of vocal hooks, piano hooks, guitar hooks — this album may pack more hooks per minute than any other in history, who knows? He certainly had time to come up with and perfect them.

This is an even more dramatic Guns N’ Roses than anything before. Some might say over-dramatic. You thought “Estranged” was epic? This is even more so. Yet, boiled down, “Street of Dreams”, “Madagascar”, and “Better” are all emotion-drenched tunes and extremely well written and executed. The production, as expected, is thick and sweet. Maybe too sweet. A tune like “If The World” for example might have been better served with more basic guitar oriented production? Who knows? I’m sure Axl has done a thousand mixes of each of these songs, before selecting these final versions.

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Highlights: “Better” for its angry, awesome riffage. “Street of Dreams” as the natural successor to “November Rain”. The title track, for anger and aggression. “Madagascar” as the next “Civil War”.

Lowlights: Wasn’t much into “Scraped”, “If The World”, and the overly-techno “Shackler’s Revenge”. Illusions had filler too, y’know.

Most of all I love the playing. These are some of the best players in the world, bar none. Plus a guy like Tommy Stinson is a rock veteran with a history longer than Axl’s. With these kinds of experienced rockers on board, Chinese Democracy was bound to be impressive. What Chinese Democracy lacks are two things:

1. Band chemistry. You can’t fake it.

2. A suitable predecessor. If Guns had even one interim album to bridge the sounds and introduce new members gradually, Chinese Democracy wouldn’t sound like such a shock to the old-time fans.

It may turn out that Chinese Democracy is as close to a “bridge” record as we will get. Axl claims the next two albums that he’s written are even more extreme departure from the Guns sound.

Hopefully, those next two Guns N’ Roses records will eventually materialize.  They should include “Silkworms” a great punky synth-rocker, and a song that Sebastian Bach raves about called “The General”. Whenever Axl feels motivated enough to finish them.

4/5 stars

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