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Guns N’ Roses, NYC: Axl and Co. Go Back to Clubland, With Mixed Results

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Twenty-four years, four albums and countless lineup changes ago, Guns N’ Roses played the Ritz in New York City. MTV’s cameras caught the then-ascendent group in action, and the performance achieved legendary status, eventually making its way to DVD. Last night (Feb. 15), as GNR returned to the venue for the last of this month’s three NYC club gigs, the question was how Axl Rose — the lone remaining member from that 1988 incarnation — would mark the occasion. He might have followed the ‘Live at the Ritz’ setlist, or better yet, he could have snuck in OG sidemen Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan or Steven Adler, musicians he’ll supposedly reunite with in April at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Alas, Axl and his super-mega-jacked new lineup — three guitars, two keyboards, bass and drums — did precisely what they’ve been doing for the last year. They came on late and played for three nonstop hours, during which time they turned in serviceable renditions of old favorites and made as strong a case as might be made for ‘Chinese Democracy,’ airing about a third of that long-delayed, oft-mocked 2008 disc.

Today’s GNR is loud, flamboyant, precise but not exacting and staffed with colorful characters, among them former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson and stick-thin, tat-covered guitarist Richard Fortus, the only guy onstage who could have gone clothes shopping with the ‘Appetite for Destruction’-era group. In his dark shades and Macho Man Randy Savage mustache-and-cowboy-hat combo, Axl remains a shadowy figure — an unknowable entity who’s all the more transfixing and unpredictable now that he’s into his Elvis-in-Vegas years.

And yet what now passes for Guns lacks firepower. Opener ‘Chinese Democracy’ proved a satisfyingly sleazy lead-in to ‘Welcome to the Jungle,’ maybe the sleaziest song of all time, and over the next ten songs, the band showed adequate hunger on four additional ‘Appetite’ tunes; maimed — but didn’t kill — with their cover of Paul McCartney’s ‘Live and Let Die,’ prefacing it with bits of the James Bond theme; and played to a backdrop of swimming dolphins on ‘Estranged,’ harking back to that inscrutable trio of videos they put out in the early ’90s.

There was little cause for disappointment, even for those who shelled out more than $125 for scalper tickets, but it was hard to feel part of a “once in a lifetime” experience, as the concert had been billed.

Watch ‘Nightrain (Live at The Ritz, Feb. 15, 2012)’ Video

By this time, the clock had struck 1AM, and the group still had two hours to go. Axl has never quite grasped the difference between quality and quantity, and perhaps in an effort to avoid doing a straight-up nostalgia act, he padded the set with solo showcases for each band member and snips of obvious classic-rock covers (the Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley, Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall: Part 2′). Axl only briefly mentioned the Ritz gig, and were it not for the fact the venue had temporarily reverted to its original name, all memory of the lean, mean ’88 unit might have been lost.

The confetti canons finally went off around 3AM, just after Axl had bounded back onto the stage to twirl through the final bars of ‘Paradise City.’ His slithering snake dance, like his tortured-cat yowl, is impressive for a 50-year-old, and despite his lapses in taste and judgement, he at least deserves credit for having assembled a band that, while mindful of history, has its own look and personality.

That it’s vastly inferior is immaterial, at least to Axl, whose stubbornness borders on commendable. When he sings the breakdown in ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine,’ the part that asks, “Where do we go now?” he either doesn’t register the words or doesn’t dream of answering them in any way besides the one he has: Onward, for better or worse.

Watch ‘The History of Guns N’ Roses’ Video

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