If you haven’t given Guns N’ Roses a thought in decades, a moment is needed to adjust to Axl Rose dancing his serpentine with a beer gut. One such patron watching this at the Joint at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino looked bemusedly at the three guitar players onstage and asked the woman next to him, “Which one is Slash?” Slash, of course, played his last show with the band in 1993. But that’s Vegas audiences, down for the hits, not connoisseurs of the experience.
This was a recent Wednesday night and The Joint had plenty of seated and general admission space open as the venerable band headed toward the second half of a month of shows, a first stab at headlining as residents in Vegas. A couple nights later, a Friday, there were certainly more people present but still plenty of visibly empty seats. Asked about attendance, the public relations firm avoided specifics and said, “It was an average of 3,000 a show.” Even if that isn’t the mind-blowing numbers of back in the day, it is fantastic business for an off-strip casino in recession-scarred Vegas. Tickets were not all that were selling. Restaurants were full, gamblers were on the floor, and a line of the faithful awaited a chance to shell out $50 for a T-shirt at the merchandise booth.
This may surprise some, even some fans, but a Guns N’ Roses residency in Vegas was not risky. It was a no brainer. The reality is that G&R were long past due to begin their Vegas years. The bit-too-revealing title assigned to these shows: “Appetite for Democracy.” That’s meant to link the 25th anniversary of hair-metal classic Appetite for Destruction, the disc that made G&R the biggest band in the world (for a while) to—conveniently or a bit forced—the fourth anniversary of Chinese Democracy, the band’s most recent disc, famously expensive to make, much delayed in release, and modest in sales. The comparison between eras is not flattering nor is the implied question: “Well, Chinese Democracy was 2008, what have you done this decade?” Time for the Vegas show!
Increasingly obvious about being an oldies act, Rose has been playing footsie with cashing in on his Vegas potential for more than a decade. It was in Vegas, after a nine-year hiatus from performing, that Rose, in the early hours of 2001, debuted this new vision of Guns N’ Roses. It was a show of epic length with an overstocked lake of new members, all virtuoso players who blazed through the hits. There were few cover songs, and some new material that wound up on Chinese Democracy.
Rose promised from the stage a new disc that year—which didn’t happen—but the band was back in Vegas anyway for sold-out shows at the end of the year. Each one opened with the crowd-pleasing trinity “Welcome to the Jungle,” then “It’s So Easy,” followed by “Mr. Brownstone.”
Once again in Vegas for last New Year’s Eve at The Joint, Guns N’ Roses opened with "Chinese Democracy" but then followed with the same familiar trinity. Each night the final encore, of course, concluded with “Paradise City.” They’ve now toured the world with slight variants on this set list for years, and the Vegas residency shows they've stuck to such commonplaces. Longtime fans are so familiar with these live arrangements they drum in the air knowingly in advance to mark the moment the pyrotechnic effects explode with percussive force in “Welcome to the Jungle.”
Bass player Tommy Stinson has now been in Guns N’ Roses 15 years (longer than his original stint in The Replacements). In all those years, G&R has mostly been a touring unit. Backstage before the Friday night show, he tells The Daily Beast of the current band: “We know all the old stuff as good as we are going to get it. We’ve been playing a lot of the old stuff for years and years and years.” These old songs aren’t delivered in the sloppy Stones style the original players made famous, but with a wallop on a sonic canvas worthy of Rose’s ego. There are moments the grim metal can overpower the sleazy pop charm of early material. Still, there is no arguing the band is monumental to experience live. This is the best wall-of-90s-sound band ever to pound out the hits of the ‘80s.
Band aside, the real star and crowd pleaser remains: Rose’s voice.
Stinson is happy to concede that the residency is essentially the same show fans have seen for years. Still, he notes, “I think there was an effort to make the show interesting in different things like the flying piano.” Rose plays the piano on "November Rain" while sailing briefly over the audience.
And the Vegas experiment is a success so far. “Axl’s getting more comfortable with it and getting inspired to do other songs and that’s awesome, we love that,” says Stinson. One such moment, recently, the band began inserting a cover of The Who’s “The Seeker.” One glaringly obvious omission: there haven’t been new original songs. On a tour that might be a problem, but that's not held against any band in Vegas. Fans who come to concerts here view new songs as moments for a bathroom break anyway.
Vegas crowds just want to be welcomed to the jungle and admitted to paradise city. And, band aside, the real star and crowd pleaser remains: Rose’s voice. Less feral and powerful, perhaps, but Rose can still soar as high as ever when needed before executing his dexterous transformation into guttural shouts. The fan who didn’t know Slash was gone was soon yelling approval to all around, “These guys fucking rock.” Indeed.
And, just to make sure the crowd stays pleased, after the more-spartan early shows, dancers were added to writhe to some of the hits. Asked about them backstage, Stinson allows an awkward pause, sips his drink and finally just says “Yup.” He then admits his 4-year-old burst out laughing at the sight of the gyrating hotties on stage with dad’s band. Stinson clearly thinks the dancers add nothing to the music. And, he is right, of course, though headlining in Vegas is often about more than sound.
Later in the evening, two strippers (from Sapphire Gentlemen's Club) are escorted backstage. One gives her name as Ashley. The 24-year-old says this is the first time she will be performing with Guns N’ Roses. “The other girls who were on stage on Wednesday night they were the go-go dancers,” Ashley explains. “They are still there. They just added us in suddenly last night, too. We’re the pole dancers.”
Nothing is too excessive or too obvious for Guns N' Roses or Las Vegas.