Axl wasn’t going to show up.
If the rumors shimmying up and down the line outside Las Vegas’ House of Blues — where 300 or so rowdy celebrants had just finished ringing in the New Year — were to be believed, the much-anticipated return of Guns N’ Roses and its volatile, 38-year-old frontman, Axl Rose, would prove to be a great rock & roll swindle. The singer would bail out, the naysayers insisted, unable to handle the pressure of performing live for the first time in seven years. Or, he would show up, completely unrecognizable, and plow through a bunch of equally unfamiliar songs before leaving.
The tension was understandable. Though GN’R reigned as one of the most successful bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s — its 1987 breakthrough, Appetite for Destruction, still sells an average 9,000 copies a week, according to SoundScan — Rose dropped out of the spotlight shortly after the band’s 1993 world tour, eventually severing ties with all of the group’s remaining members and trying in vain to record a new album. The shift from high-profile, troublemaking celeb to rock & roll recluse made Rose the subject of rumors of Howard Hughes-like eccentricity. Rampant, too, was speculation on his physical appearance. In fact, for many the thrill was just to get a glimpse of the singer. ”I want to see if he’s fat,” said John Parrott, a 34-year-old marketing executive from L.A. ”I want to see if he’s porked out like the rest of us during the last seven years.”
Those hoping to witness Rose in action had to fork out big bucks: Tickets for the show, priced at $150, sold out in minutes, and since no photography was allowed, security spent much of the evening confiscating cameras from would-be paparazzi in the crowd (”If [Rose] sees a flash, he’s leaving,” one guard cautioned).
It wasn’t until 3:30 a.m. that fans got their first look. Dressed in track pants and a black, dragon-embossed shirt that resembled a pajama top (and sans the trademark bandanna and aviator glasses), Rose strutted out to the snakelike guitar riff of ”Welcome to the Jungle” and unleashed his patented high-pitched howl. From there, he and his newly reconstituted GN’R — which includes former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, ex-Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck, and avant-garde guitarist Buckethead — tore through a rowdy two-hour set, drawing heavily from Appetite and providing a brief first listen to Chinese Democracy, the long-awaited and perennially promised comeback album now slated for release, um, this year. The night’s four new songs proved to be the biggest head-scratchers: For all the speculation that Rose had turned to sonic experimentalists like Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM for inspiration, the material didn’t lean toward any particular sound. Only one unnamed number, with its thrash-and-dance style, showed any sign of industrial influence, while a crowd-pleasing power-chord anthem called ”The Blues” echoed vintage Guns N’ Roses.
The infamously temper-prone Rose, however, seemed far removed from his on-stage griping of the past. ”You’re embarrassing me,” he told the pumped-up audience with a smile as they chanted ”Welcome back.” Even a few technical glitches didn’t trip him up. ”Let’s do ‘Patience,’ because that’s what I’m going to try to experience right now,” he joked after an onstage monitor went haywire.