Freewheeling Axl

Guns N’ Roses’ concerts in India were all about cult music and nostalgia, but this ageing band saw a surprisingly big turnout of children
Music
RAGING APPETITE AT 50: Axl Rose, lead singer of Guns N’ Roses

It was not a surprise to see a large number of young people at the Guns N’ Roses concert in Gurgaon—a suburb of Delhi—given that GN’R was at its peak as a rock band in the late 1980s. Unusual was the presence of children. Some had come with their families, others in groups chaperoned by one of their parents. Sixteen-year-old Yajur Khosla had his face painted with the GN’R motif and was wearing a jacket pinned with pictures of Axl Rose and with fan messages scribbled on it. He was there to show his “dedication” to the band. He was seen squealing and fidgeting all through the evening, and his obliging friends heaved him high on their shoulders for a while, for him to get more of the action. “My dad introduced me to the band, and I want to play the guitar like Bumblefoot.” Bumblefoot is the man who has taken the legendary lead guitarist Slash’s place, and the loyalty of many fans is deeply divided on Axl- versus-Slash lines.

The handover from parents to their kids is one way to explain the presence of children at the concert. Another is video games. Guitar Hero III has been a popular game since its release in 2007 and Slash is one of the playable characters in it. Shobhit Arora, 14, says he first heard Welcome to the Jungle while playing this video game.

It is another thing that the same kids who exuded such devotion to GN’R were also heard speaking about their disappointment at missing Swedish House Mafia, their affection for Skrillex and their wait for LMFAO to perform in India next year (a likelihood). This is the kind of talk that makes GN’R puritans cringe.

If there were puritans around, there were sceptics too, looking out for things to pick on. Much of the talk about the band’s India tour has been about whether Axl at 50 is still any good and if the band minus its other original performers—such as Slash—can do justice to the music.

The band has been around since 1985, and Axl Rose, its frontman, is the only one left of the classic lineup, apart from the unassuming pianist Dizzy Reed. Should the band perhaps rename itself ‘Axl Rose’, like Bon Jovi is named after its vocalist, and kill that debate? A friend quipped on Facebook that the present lineup seems like a good ‘cover version’ of the original.

This is the first time that the band has come to India, and four years after it released its last album, titled Chinese Democracy.

The band performed at three venues this month. At the Mumbai concert, Axl claimed that he had “been wanting to come to India for the last 27 years”. If Axl Rose had been waiting so long, just why didn’t he come? For Indian fans of American rock music, this has always been a pet peeve: why does it take their heroes such a long time to discover India? Vikas, a 29-year-old who runs a construction business in Delhi, did not have very high expectations before the concert began, though he has been listening to GN’R since he was in school. “We take what we get,” he shrugs. “When musicians come to India, they are usually somewhat passé and never in their prime.”

With due consideration for age, it must be said that Axl still has it. At all three concerts, the band played a whole three-hour set. As rock stars, they were shockingly punctual, and did not let up. Axl belted out his vocals and maintained a particular swivel of his hips, passing his mike from hand to hand, and, on the few occasions that he chose to take off his sunglasses, fixing the audience with long unblinking gazes after some of his songs.

Axl seemed to have extra energy for Civil War. He danced around the stage in a top hat and long glittery coat, finally whistling for and showing his middle finger to someone he called “Cad”. He referred to this mysterious person several times during the show. An inside joke? Likely.

Visually, Axl was a bit of a letdown. There was no lean face, straight hair and trademark bandana. Instead, there was an overall puffy frame, and his famed bandana was hanging out of his back pocket. Although he was wearing another one on his head, his array of hats and shades left very little of his face to look at. Hats, though, are an important part of the GN’R identity.

Both Slash and Buckethead are known for their hats. But ‘the Axl’—as he is known—is supposed to come with a bandana, and theories on balding are now open season.

He changed his hat and coat innumerable times, and towards the end of the show, tossed some of his jewellery into the audience. There were also a few gimmicks, weird ones at that.

At the concert in Mumbai, Axl popped a tablet and drank some water—because, he said, he wanted his mood to stay good. In Delhi, playing Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, he wore what appeared to be a silicone toupée and then dropped it in favour of a silicone mask of an old man with buckteeth. “Axl wasn’t feeling too well. He had to go take a nap,” he said later.

In Mumbai, he dedicated the concert to Freddie Mercury, the late lead vocalist of the band Queen who had once studied in the city. In Delhi, the concert was dedicated to Pandit Ravi Shankar, who had died on the same day. In Bangalore, Thermal and a Quarter opened for GN’R, and this Indian band hit it off with Bumblefoot, who found its music interesting.

Those who love guitar riffs couldn’t have asked for more of GN’R. The stage was a riot with four guitarists pacing about with wild energy. Bumblefoot often had a go at a double-neck guitar, and all of them changed guitars and clothes several times, gleefully snapping strings along the way.

The format and setlist was nearly the same at all three concerts in the country. A grand piano was brought on stage for Axl to play November Rain, and he whistled the famous intro to Patience. The band got the most rousing audience response, though, to Sweet Child O’ Mine and Welcome to the Jungle. It also played covers of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, The Who’s The Seeker and Led Zep’s No Quarter. And then the concert ended with the high-pitched frenzy of Paradise City and a shower of red confetti.

It took eight musicians on stage to make up for the classic five. It is not easy taking on such rock anthems, but the band did do a tight job of it. The current lineup didn’t dare mess around while playing the anthems. “Any long-term fan will miss the big names, but the present musicians stuck very close to the original recordings, and played it perfectly,” said Bruce Lee Mani of Thermal and a Quarter. 

It was a good enough gig for most fans to go back pleased. Some, more than merely pleased. Akshat Bhatt enjoyed the show so much in Bangalore that he attended the one in Delhi and would have attended the one in Mumbai too if it were possible. “I began playing the guitar after hearing November Rain,” he enthused, “and I have been playing for 20 years.”

Towards the end of the concert, I saw an unidentified piece of clothing being tossed on stage. While leaving, I met Yajur Khosla again. He had no pants on and was going home in his boxers. “If I had a bra,” he declared, “I would have thrown it on stage.”