If events like this one — a “secret show” announced at the last minute — are meant to create the ever-sought-after buzz, well, mission accomplished. Guns N’ Roses, in town for Governor’s Ball on Saturday, decided to schedule a warm-up of sorts. The Brooklyn Bowl isn’t small (cap: 600), but it’s not Randall’s Island: The allotment of $150 tickets for last night’s show reportedly sold out in 40 seconds. Once the reality of the event sunk in, excitement turned to speculation. Would Axl Rose even show up, and if so, when?
Even the DJ for the performance, ?uestlove, tweeted he’d keep the throng occupied from 9:30 “til Axl’s ready.” The crowd at Brooklyn Bowl had little confidence in being in bed before sunrise, either — a largely male crew watched the NBA Finals on a flatscreen instead of monitoring the stage. (It was a festival of blurred lines, the present reality of hedge-fund gentrifiers converging with leather-clad rabble rousers of a bygone era.) But, Axl & Co. made their first surprise of the night by taking the stage at 11:20 PM. The 9-5 stiffs breathed a sigh of relief.
The eight-man team banged through “You’re Crazy” off of Appetite For Destruction right out the gate, which was followed by another familiar riff, careening off the bowling-alley walls. “Welcome To The Jungle” made it readily apparent this wasn’t going to be a Chinese Democracy kind of night. This brought another sigh of relief: Throwbacks, greatest hits, and glory days were on tap. The Hells Angels who were gathered near the entry were all smiles.
“Jungle” made clear another factor: Axl Rose’s voice is still a force. Time hasn’t been too kind to his body or hair (remember the cornrows?), but his pipes escaped the halcyon days nearly untarnished. His singing, at one time, was one of the greatest instruments in all of rock and roll music. And, if the highest highs of last night were any indication, it still is. He was quite the scene: a leather jacket, of course, with sunglasses and a hat covering his face. He looked as if he could’ve been plucked off the corner of Wythe Avenue around the time Appetite was released, or picked to star in a reboot of The Invisible Man.
Guns N’ Roses, now, is a polished spectacle. It’s a cohesive, streamlined operation, one that almost makes you forget what year it is. (It is still a damn shame it’s not Slash up there taking solos on the speakers, his afro swaying in the wind. Another shame: no Buckethead, either.) The bit players appear to be the kinds of fellas who pick up the lady-leftovers from Bret Michaels or Tommy Lee, but they can thrash. Or, at the very least, the eight of them — adroit, with speedy fingers — can generate sonics on par with what five could accomplish 25 years ago.
Tommy Stinson happens to be in the cast of characters, plucking his bass along to “Estranged” and “Night Train.” In the latter half of the show, Axl took to going offstage, and letting the sidemen have a moment in the spotlight. Stinson played “Motivation” from his 2004 solo disc, Village Gorilla Head, but it was his other band that came to mind. An odd sight: a founding member of the Replacements now part of another ’80s troupe. The Replacements were, arguably, more influential and important than GNR; they certainly never battled on the charts or for the same audience. (Images of Can’t Hardly Wait came to mind, too, the film named after a Replacements tune and featuring a climactic scene revolving around “Paradise City.”)
“Civil War” was a major highlight; “Live And Let Die” felt rushed, and they steered “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” with just the right amount of balladry. GNR hit the holy triumvirate of covers when they came out for the encore with the Who’s “The Seeker.” The final song of the night was “Paradise City,” guys raising devil horns while ladies mounted their shoulders. Everyone’s iPhones were out. No shirts were raised, and after Axl threw his red microphone in the crowd, a bewilderment lingered. Then, everyone went back outside; back into 2013.