|TACOMA, Washington Crawling from the wreckage of their noisily aborted tour kickoff in Vancouver the night before which ended in a fan riot and a bloody, club-wielding response by local police Guns N' Roses came charging into the Tacoma Dome, about 45 minutes outside of Seattle, with considerable pent-up energy on Friday. Unfortunately, there wasn't quite enough of it to entirely overcome some annoying technical obstacles that laid in wait.
The Dome is a boomy place at best; with only about half of its 22,500 seats occupied, as was the case with this show, the resulting sonic wallow often obscured the band's remarkable precision. On top of that, singer Axl Rose's microphone line slowly deteriorated throughout the course of the two-hour-plus set: By the end, his trademark wail was jabbing in and out of the mix so erratically that he started overcompensating, and finished the night (we were told) with blown vocal cords.
These sound problems obscured some of the best efforts of an impressive band. The new Guns N' Roses is a big group three guitars and two keyboards along with bass and drums and the level of its musicianship is unusually high. One-time Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson and ex-Primus drummer Brian Mantia propel the band with the requisite bottom-end muscle, but with rare agility, too. Chris Pittman is extraordinarily flamboyant for a guy who traffics in keyboards. And former Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck, who tempers his screaming leads with soulful control, is also a maestro of pure, string-ripping noise.
And then there's Buckethead. You know that a guy wearing a deadpan white mask and a fried-chicken bucket on his head is becoming a serious cult star when a couple dozen fans turn up in the audience sporting KFC headware of their own. And you definitely know the news is out when Axl Rose himself, midway through the old Guns hit "Patience," straps on a little mini-bucket, too. But the really riveting thing about Buckethead who's a veteran of the avant-funk-fusion scene isn't his get-up; it's the jaw-dropping precision with which he can tear through a finger-blurring solo. He's super-fast and lyrical at the same time. He also does a robot-dance interlude that has to be witnessed to be fully appreciated.
All of the band's instrumental fireworks (and the show's explosive, old-school pyrotechnics) serve to illuminate the charismatic presence of Axl Rose, of course. His inimitable shriek remains ... well, inimitable and he can still hold those keening notes beyond what might seem to be normal human ability. He also probably racks up as much non-stop sprint mileage onstage as most frontmen half his age.
Chinese Democracy, the new Guns album Rose has been promising for the past decade, won't be out 'til February. (Yes so they say!) Therefore, the new band's repertoire is heavily studded with vintage tunes: "Welcome to the Jungle," of course, and "Paradise City." And everybody gets to sing along to "Sweet Child O' Mine," too, and "November Rain," "Live and Let Die," and "Mr. Brownstone." Even "Oh My God." (Well, maybe not.
But the future of Guns N' Roses lies in the direction of the handful of new songs the group is currently playing: the gorgeous ballad "Madagascar," the gut-shaking "Rhiad" and the monumentally riffed-out "Chinese Democracy" itself. These songs, largely composed by Rose and the whole band (there are "probably hundreds" of others, according to keyboardist Dizzy Reed, probably exaggerating a bit), could sustain the ongoing GN'R project into a new creative era. It'd be nice to have them stick around.