The last time 11 p.m. rolled around at a Philly-area Guns N’ Roses show with no sign of Guns N’ Roses, unrest was in the air. It was December 6, 2002, and some version of Axl’s band had managed to sell out the 17,500-seat First Union Center (now Wells Fargo Center) more than a decade after releasing any notable material. When word came shortly after 11 that Axl had decided to take the night off, fans rioted, destroying sound equipment and leading to the hospitalization of several people. Promoters canceled the remainder of the tour.
On Saturday night at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, the mood was decidedly calmer, even when Axl and friends took the stage at 11 p.m. sharp with pyrotechnics and the 1987 breakthrough hit “Welcome to the Jungle.” The 6,500-seat venue was almost full, though nearly a quarter of those in attendance got their tickets for free. Prior to the start, there were no “Guns. And. Roses!” chants, no fights, no unruly behavior of any kind. Just a lot of well-behaved people drinking a lot of beer. $12 beer.
The current tour got off to a seriously rocky start in October when Guns N’ Roses headlined Brazil’s Rock In Rio festival. They didn’t take the stage until 2:40 a.m., the production was rife with technical issues, Axl botched the lyrics to some of his most memorable songs, and, perhaps worst of all for the rock-and-roll image, he seemed bloated and fat. (Yellow is so not your color, my man.)
But other than a lame, unappreciative crowd (and an even lamer light show and video projection element, which seemed like a middle-school project rather than state-of-the-art animations and graphics), there was little to complain about at the Camden performance.
A leaner-than-Rio Axl blazed through all of the hits, including the often underrated “Estranged” (here’s live video of that tune), as well as a hefty amount of material from 2008’s Chinese Democracy, one of the most expensive albums ever made and a commercial disaster. Fans used the Democracy spots in the set list (and the drawn-out, indulgent instrumentalist solos that are obligatory in a two-and-a-half hour rock concert) as opportunities to get beer, use the bathroom, or catch a smoke outside.
The highlight came mid-show after “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” The band’s two guitarists (Slash is long gone) traded licks from Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In the Wall Part I” before a Monster-swilling Axl appeared at a grand piano, leading into “Another Brick In the Wall Part II” (aka “We Don’t Need No Education”). The crowd halfheartedly sang along. Axl abruptly cut short that song, played a little bit of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” followed by even less of Sir Elton’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” before eventually landing on the nine-minute “November Rain.” “Epic!” texted a friend also in attendance, and he was right.
Axl Rose may be as crazy as they say he is, but the man wrote some great songs and performed them well on Saturday night. But short of a full scale Guns N’ Roses reunion, which has been hinted at in light of the original lineup’s nomination to the 2012 Rock Hall of Fame (Sammy Hagar wants to manage them), there’s little chance that he’ll ever be coming back here again.