On May 9, 1988, I had the unforgettable experience of seeing GUNS N’ ROSES play the Felt Forum, adjacent to Madison Square Garden (now known as “The Theater at MSG”).  I was 16 years old, it was a school night, and AXL ROSE hit the stage about two hours late in notoriously predictable fashion, but eventually came out and rocked the place, exuding raw energy in the purest and most unbridled form that I had ever witnessed at the time.  GNR was in its prime with the original lineup of Axl, Slash, Izzy , Duff, and Steven Adler on the heels of the worldwide success of Appetite for Destruction and their already ubiquitous follow up record, GN’R Lies (I call them ‘records,’ because that’s what they actually were).  Everything about this band of Hollywood derelicts seemed authentic, from Axl explaining his lateness by bragging that he got drunk on an MTV shoot and spent the rest of the day passed out, to his announcement that they would be returning to play “upstairs” (at MSG) in August with Aerosmith, “unless we O.D. before then.”  Even as a dopey adolescent, I had the sense that I was witnessing history, if for no reason other than the undeniable reality that these guys were on top of the world but clearly teetering on the edge. 

25 years later, practically to the day, AXL ROSE and the latest incarnation of GUNS N’ ROSES played a last-minute, secret show on Thursday night (June 6) at BROOKLYN BOWL before an intimate crowd of 600 people, in advance of their headline gig on Saturday, June 8th at Governor’s Ball on Randall’s Island.  Rose, the only original member of the band, now 51, is no longer the slinky, slender bad boy poster child for heroin chic, but instead he has become somewhat of a visual oddity in recent years, popping up on the internet balding and bloated, sometimes in corn row braids, frequently sporting a fu manchu mustache.  Axl graced the Brooklyn Bowl stage on Thursday wearing a wide brimmed fedora and large aviator shades for the duration of the show, which when combined with a substantial amount of bling around his neck and hands, had the effect of what you might get if you crossed a contemporary Van Morrison with a pre-Rastafarian Snoop Dogg, the former of whom I’ve seen on numerous occasions at the Theater at MSG, and the latter of whom I’ve seen both at Randall’s Island and at Brooklyn Bowl, making the reference not only relevant, but informed. 

Nevertheless, despite the weirdness of the visual, the Brooklyn crowd seemed pleasantly surprised by Axl’s vocal range and overall enthusiasm.  Given his track record, those in attendance would have been justified in having low expectations and the legitimate fear that Rose might take their money, show up late and phone it in, assuming of course that he actually makes it to the venue.  On the contrary, Axl Rose came to play and started reasonably on time, in fact (about 11:15 for an 11pm showtime).  He sang for real, hit the high notes, remembered the words, and rocked as hard as ever, truthfully.  

I wasn’t really sure what to make of Axl and his 8 man band of flashy rock star types during the opening song, “You’re Crazy,” which seemed to be slowed down considerably, with the lyrics somewhat garbled and perhaps vocally re-interpreted by Rose, a la Bob Dylan.  Guitarist, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, was wearing a torn t-shirt bearing the slogan “My Wife Rocks,” and something about GUNS N’ ROSES, party of eight, brought about the immediate concern that this could amount to little more than a geriatric GNR tribute band fronted by the original singer, who may as well be someone else anyway.   However, once the band picked up the energy after the opening song with their signature anthem, “Welcome to the Jungle,” it immediately came together.  Axl began moving about the small stage, and it became apparent that his unmistakably shrill voice was very much intact.  The band definitely looked the part, but also proved to be bona fide rock stars who knew what they were doing.  The three guitarists DJ ASHBA, RICHARD FORTUS, and BUMBLEFOOT are all seasoned players well versed in the genre, and bassist, TOMMY STINSON, who was a founding member of THE REPLACEMENTS in 1979 at the age of 13, held it steady as the credible grownup, albeit a fish out of water.  He was rewarded for his participation with the opportunity to play one of his own songs, “Motivation,” later in the set.

I believe that once the band got through the first song and became acclimated with the surroundings, they came to terms with the reality of the situation as well.  They would be spending the next two hours in front of a small crowd of New Yorkers who may have been willing to shell out $150 to attend this happening, but they weren’t going to scream and fawn over a band that phoned it in.  If anything, half of these people may have paid the money knowing full well that if their return didn’t come in the form of an awesome show, at least they’d have great stories to tell about the train wreck around the water cooler in the morning.  Axl looked over the audience and exclaimed “I didn’t realize it was going to be THIS kind of a show.”  At times, guitarist, DJ Ashba, looked out at the crowd incredulously as if bewildered by the absence of topless women or throngs of fist pumping devil horns.  Welcome to the Jungle, boys.  You are in Brooklyn now, and nobody is going to love you just for being you, so the choice is either to rock the house or wake up tomorrow with reports of mediocrity that will follow you across the river to Randall’s Island on Saturday.

Luckily, GNR rose to the occasion and belted out a 20 song set of almost every classic we could have wished for, with the exception of possibly “November Rain,” and “Patience,” which the band seemed to be planning for as they reached for the acoustic guitars during the encore, only to be discouraged by Axl, who apologized on more than one occasion for his lack of energy, as he was fighting nausea throughout the night after eating something nasty at a truck stop.  He jokingly feigned a motion to vomit on several occasions, once over the front row of the crowd…not nearly as Rock and Roll a move as drinking all morning and spending the day passed out as he did in 1988.  Nevertheless, if he didn’t bring his ailment to the attention of the crowd, no one would have noticed, because the energy that he displayed was more than anyone bargained for, and we would have probably attributed his frequent exits from the stage during guitar solos to eccentricity or addiction rather than incontinence brought about by food poisoning.  Despite Axl not having the patience to sing “Patience,” the band still finished up strong, closing out the show with a high energy encore consisting of a cover of “The Seeker,” by The Who and a satisfying “Paradise City,” as seen in the video link below.

All in all, GUNS N’ROSES gave the crowd what they wanted…an inspired set of classics in an intimate setting without any distracting antics or drama.  Axl Rose left NYC feeling good about the state of GNR in its current place in history and affirmed that the classics still hold up.  For BROOKLYN BOWL, it’s another one for the record books along with Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, M.I.A., Paul Simon, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and former President, Bill Clinton, all giants of our culture who have graced the stage at one point or another in the nearly four years since the intimate venue opened.  It is the intimacy of the room and the relaxed vibe of the venue combined with the eager but unfazed Brooklyn audience that makes these events so special.  When Axl Rose stepped out on stage on Thursday night, it was as if he were transported back to a time even before the Felt Forum show in 1988.  The last time GNR played in Brooklyn, it was October 29, 1987, at the now defunct Heavy Metal club, L’AMOUR, before an even smaller audience than Thursday’s.  I would love to hear a recording of the entire Brooklyn Bowl show, because my ears may have been deceiving me, but I thought I heard Axl say “it feels like we’re playing at L’Amours.”  Whether he actually verbalized that reference or not, that is what I heard, and that is what it felt like to me.  Unfortunately, I was 15 years old at the time of that show, and thwarted by the “16 and over” door policy.  It may have taken Axl a whole 25 years to get back to Brooklyn, but I’m glad he made it, and I’m glad I was there to witness Rock and Roll history the second time around with Axl…albeit older, wiser, and undoubtedly fatter.

GUNS N’ ROSES perform Paradise City at Brooklyn Bowl 06/06/13