Edited by Brett Buchanan
So, the world loves Axl Rose again. He’s fronting two of the biggest bands of all time, at the same time, and knocking it out of the park with both.
But he’s not always been so well received. Since Slash and Duff McKagan left Guns N’ Roses, people have loved to trot out the idea that Axl is nothing without Slash and Duff backing him up. So, let’s take a look through the archives, at the history of Axl without Slash and Duff, and see what he can really do.
Salt of the Earth with the Rolling Stones
When Guns N’ Roses burst onto the scene, they were constantly touted as the next Rolling Stones. For better or worse, that wasn’t to be, but there was one night when we did get to see Keith Richards, Izzy Stradlin, Axl Rose and Mick Jagger all on stage together, and witness their shared rock n roll DNA in action, performing Salt of the Earth from Beggars Banquet. Axl takes performing with the Stones in his stride in a way that pretty much every vocalist that’s guested with the Stones since has failed to do.
Free Fallin/Heartbreak Hotel with Tom Petty
OK, I admit these first two are kind of cheating, because while Slash and Duff are absent, Izzy Stradlin is there. But let’s be honest, he’s not exactly propping up Axl in these performances. Look at Tom Petty’s reaction to Axl hitting that note at 3:40, he knows he’s being outdone on his own material. By the time Heartbreak Hotel kicks in there might as well be only one guy on that stage.
Bohemian Rhapsody with Queen
If the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert proved anything, it’s that Freddie Mercury is an untouchable vocalist and, and as the rest of Queen has proved countless times since, an irreplaceable frontman. Axl, a huge Mercury fan, must’ve known what it meant to take on the huge task of the second half of Bohemian Rhapsody. When he comes out, there are literal fireworks. Look at that shot from behind, the whole crowd bouncing in unison while Axl screams them down. On a day full of rockstars, there was only one man there who could pull that off.
Back In Black with AC/DC
The world did not respond kindly to the news that Axl was going to be taking over singing duties for AC/DC’s 2016 run. One of the world’s most universally beloved rock bands being fronted by one of the rock world’s most controversial figures. Most Axl fans knew he could pull it off, but I can’t imagine many could’ve imagined just how well he would do. Look at this, Back In Black, one of the biggest songs in rock history, from his first show with the band. Consigned to a chair, you would’ve understood if Axl hadn’t been able to give it his all. Then check out that delivery at 1:21. Most vocalists, trying to squeeze in the lyrics ‘don’t try to push your luck, just get out of my way’ would’ve pulled back a bit. Certainly, if you watch any recent Brian Johnson performances, that’s what he did. Not Axl. He fires through those lines like a god-damn nuclear missile.
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – Rock In Rio 2001
This is a strange and often overlooked night in Guns N Roses history, which actually drew one of the biggest crowds the band has ever had. Apart from a few warm up shows, this was really the world’s first exposure to the ‘new’ Guns N’ Roses, complete with Buckethead, Robin Finck and an entirely different Axl Rose. While people argued about Axl’s voice, his appearance, whether the guitarists were as good as Slash etc one thing got overlooked. Axl had added an entirely new voice to his repertoire. Listen to that smooth, deep voice Axl uses on Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, giving the song a restraint and maturity the giant, crashing Use Your Illusions version of the song never had.
First of all I was going to do all live performances, but I felt that this needed drawing attention to. Is this Axl’s most versatile vocal performance ever? Hell, is this one of rock’s most versatile vocals ever? The first time the demo leaked and I played it in the car for some friends (sorry Axl) I remember someone thinking that the intro vocal was a woman. Someone else was convinced that the shouting ‘Now I know you Better’ must’ve been Robin Finck. From the intro, to the verses, to the chorus, to that hellish breakdown in the middle, to the outro, Axl demonstrates more of a range in five minutes that most vocalists manage in their whole career.
Sailing – London 2006
It seems odd that Guns N’ Roses ever even covered this. It appeared in London suddenly, got played at another late night acoustic gig, then kind of disappeared. It’s certainly a hidden gem in the live Guns N Roses back catalogue, featuring perhaps the best display of the strengths of Axl’s higher 2000s vocal register.
There Was A Time – Hammerstein 2006
The 2006 Hammerstein gigs were an interesting time for Guns N’ Roses fans. How was Axl going to look? How would his voice sound like? Who would replace Buckethead? Would the recently leaked demos get played? Well, the answers to those questions were badass, incredible, Bumblefoot, and yes, with Better and There Was A Time receiving their live debuts. There Was A Time has arguably some of the greatest guitar work in the entire GNR catalogue, and certainly some of Axl’s most impressive vocals. I’ve always felt you can tell how into a performance Axl is by whether he disappears offstage during the guitar solos or not. For this one, not only is he on stage grooving to the extended guitar parts, he then comes back in with some of the rawest Axl Rose screams you’ve ever heard in your life.
You’re Crazy – L’Arc 2010
For one reason or another, Guns N’ Roses ended up doing a few of these little impromptu unplugged gigs in unexpected places. One of the best performances from that period is this acoustic You’re Crazy, with full on Axl dancing and vocal gymnastics. Proving, as if we needed proof, that Axl doesn’t need a huge stage and a plugged in band to be a totally mesmerizing frontman.
Nightrain – Rock AM Ring 2006
Of the classic GNR material, Nightrain was always one of the highlights of the 2006 shows. It became less bluesy, more of a thundering juggernaut. This performance is often held up by GNR fans not just as one of the highlights of the Chinese Democracy era, but perhaps one of the greatest Nightrain performances full stop. Look at Axl rocking out to the first solo at 2:11. Check out his power when he comes back in at 2:46. It looks like those screams at 4:41 might take Richard Fortus’ head clean off. Nightrain circa 2006 allowed Axl to let rip in the way that only Axl Rose can.
Of course, ultimately, nothing beats the chemistry those Appetite For Destruction guys have together, but let’s not forget, Axl Rose, regardless of everything else, is one of the greatest frontmen the world has ever seen.
Jared A. Carnie can be found at www.jaredacarnie.com or on Twitter @jacarnie. His debut novel, Waves, is available now from Urbane Publications.