The question facing a few thousand folks at West Valley City's Maverik Center Tuesday night wasn't whether or not it was the "real" Guns N' Roses performing onstage. It was whether Axl Rose and his assorted hired Guns could throw a worthy rock & roll show. And you might be surprised at the answer.
From the show's outset at 11 p.m., there was a distinct possibility this Guns n' Roses show could be a straight-up disaster. Singer Rose is a legendarily flighty guy, and he predictably brought his crew on stage a mere three hours after doors opened at the venue. And the horrid sound during the band's show-opener "Chinese Democracy" made one immediately think we could be in for a very long night.
That ultimately proved true, but the long night was due to an overstuffed setlist rather than bad acoustics. The sound gradually got better as Rose and Co. rambled through an early burst of GnR classics like "Welcome to the Jungle," "It's So Easy" and "Mr. Brownstone."
After that mini-suite of favorites that the crowd was clearly stoked for, the show was a an up-and-down affair, with the energy flagging during most songs from the Chinese Democracy album, and rising every time the band touched on a song from the band's late-'80s breakthrough Appetite for Destruction, or a familiar song from its double-album follow up Use Your Illusion I and II.
Playing in Utah for the first time since 1991, when the original lineup hit Salt Lake City shortly before the Use Your Illusion albums arrived and original rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin had left the band, Guns N' Roses is now a collective of unrecognizable figures backing up Rose. Tommy Stinson, ex-bassist of punk legends The Replacements, is probably the most "famous," and it's safe to say few in the crowd knew who he was. Rose gave Stinson a chance to sing lead on a cover of "Sonic Reducer," which was nice, even if few on hand had ever heard the Dead Boys tune.
The three guitarists charged with playing the parts originally written by Stradlin and Slash were competent, if largely forgettable. DJ Ashba, who handled most of Slash's parts, had the temerity to wear a top hat. Bad choice that, drawing obvious comparisons to the superior player he "replaced." Guitarist Bumblefoot did seem like a worthy creative foil for Rose, the bearded axeman reeling off bursts of creative playing that made the band feel more vital than it would just playing the old hits.
Make no mistake, the old hits were why the crowd filling maybe half the Maverik Center was there, and Rose sounded surprisingly strong on songs like "Rocket Queen" and the band's cover of "Live and Let Die." Some of the Chinese Democracy songs were better live than on record, particularly "Shackler's Revenge" and ballad "Sorry" early on.
The band played on a massive set featuring five video screens at the back showing a series of filmed vignettes and digital imagery, as well as fire bombs that occasionally burst from the stage floor and all manner of ramps to allow the players to hover over the audience gathered near the stage. The set design of GnR circa 2011 was certainly not done on the cheap.
Ninety minutes in, after a worthy version of "Sweet Child O' Mine," the band was more determined to continue into the wee hours of Wednesday than I was. And I wasn't the only one heading to the exit, knowing that the work day Wednesday wouldn't be an easy one to get started.
That might make Axl Rose and his crew far more "rock 'n' roll" than much of his audience, which showed up for a trip down Nostalgia Street to relive one of the best rock acts of 25 years ago. But I, as one of those audience members having a surprisingly decent time at the show, had no problem skipping some of bloated songs filling the end of the setlist, from "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" to "Civil War" to "Paradise City."
Where Rose goes from here, and whether this edition of the band will remain what we know as Guns n' Roses, remains to be seen. But the show was decent enough to make me curious about that future, and I didn't think that would be true when I walked in the doors of the Maverik Center.