After a humongous world tour and a month-long over-the-top residency in Las Vegas, how does Guns N’ Roses possibly top what they have just done? It’s quite simple, actually. Something probably no one but the band even thought of: strip it all down by cutting out the props, the dancers, the mega-watt lights and the endless stage acreage. So what you have left is a bare bones band focusing on the music, tuna-canned inside an over-packed, hot box of a venue, and just letting loose.
Guns N’ Roses have left vanity at the hotel lobby door and jumped feet first into the swirling, sweaty whirlpool of what it used to feel like when a hungry young band was playing balls-to-the-wall live music for anybody who would listen. The Houston show was a prime example of what they were hoping to achieve before taking a break to perhaps rest.
This is the Guns N’ Roses that fans love to see. Don’t give us dancing girls, give us raucous power chords that are as nasty as that unwashed stripper pole they dismantled after Vegas. Give us a bass player who can snarl with believable attitude and a drummer whose pure ferociousness echoes from one side of the room to the other. And top it all off with a charismatic lead singer who can singe the hair in your nostrils by hitting that one high note. Guns N Roses were in the house and they weren’t pussy-footing around.
Opening with the title track from their unfairly vilified 2008 Chinese Democracy, you could tell almost immediately there was something a little different about this GNR show. Not only was the stage a smidgen of what they were used to running around on but the lightshow spectacle was toned down and the all-out vibe was much lighter. The intimacy these changes provided was probably the best thing Guns could have done, sparking one of the best shows they have performed in a long time. The purity of the music was magical and the players honed into something special. Hence, a deeper, more emotional “This I Love” and a slowed down, swampy yet sad Bumblefoot guitar intro to “Don’t Cry;” add in a haunting Dizzy Reed “No Quarter,” a somber acoustic guitar punch by Richard Fortus and Ron Bumblefoot Thal opening into “Patience,” and Axl Rose summoning the piano-led spirit of Elton John before easing into the megahit “November Rain.” Moves like these brought a more emotional connection to their audience than any other songs they would play that night.
For those in the crowd who wanted to rock out, the GNR catalog was spinning in full force with a bitingly rebellious “Welcome To The Jungle,” “You Could Be Mine” running at a demonic full speed ahead, a powerhouse “Live & Let Die” and a show-stopping, confetti spewing rendition of “Paradise City.” “Rocket Queen,” “The Seeker,” “It’s So Easy” and “Better” also kept the crowd from ever growing restless.
Whereas in Vegas, Bumblefoot stole the show with a soaring “There Was A Time” and a gnarly “Glad To Be Here” every night, Houston belonged to Tommy Stinson and Richard Fortus. Both men were full of energetic fire, raising the bar even higher than maybe we’ve ever seen before. Stinson, especially, was bringing his punk creds to the forefront, even when wearing black cat ears on his head throughout “Estranged.” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” definitely belonged to Fortus, as did “Paradise City” when he was playing so hard he was virtually stripping the paint off his guitar. And when he teamed up with fellow guitar player Dj Ashba for the jam that would plow headfirst into “Nightrain,” you could feel the vibrations down to the roots of your teeth.
All that being said, if you weren’t there and you’ve been patiently reading through this article for a mention of the red-headed man from Indiana, your time has come. How did Axl Rose really sound? In all honesty, Rose still has plenty of life left in his vocal chords; that’s a fact. A couple of times he sounded a bit winded but overall his performance, especially when he reached down deeper to make a song hum with more of an emotional punch a la on “Patience,” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and “This I Love,” was spirited, saucy and memorable. It would have been incredible if he had slipped in for a few verses during Reed’s cover of the Zeppelin classic “No Quarter” and a few bars of Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”
But he also showed a side of himself that many seem to want to believe doesn’t exist. Rose has a sense of fun that he shows not often enough during a show. But in Houston, he was spotted smiling, playfully bumping into his brothers-in-arms, jokingly introducing Richard with “Fortus or forget us” and telling Stinson he loved his cat ears. This side of Rose is fun to watch and it’s good to see it coming out more and more.
Coming in from different states across the country to catch GNR in their short nine city run before taking a little touring time off, fans were lined up as far as the eye could see. One man traveled double-digit hours to get here, others just drove across town. Now that this short run from Rocklahoma to New York is about to end this weekend, some of the Gunners will be spending a little time working on other projects while also “focusing on the next record,” Fortus said as I sat down with him for a short chat before the Houston show to find out what he has going on for the summer.
The first thing on his agenda will be meeting up with his bandmates in The Compulsions, a raw punk-flavored rock band led by Rob Carlyle and featuring ex-Hanoi Rocks bassist Sami Yaffa and GNR drummer Frank Ferrer. Having released a kick ass record last spring called Beat The Devil that contained mostly tunes they have had in their arsenal for years, they will be reconvening next week in New York to whip up some new songs.
“It’s a fun band,” Fortus says with a smile. “Rob’s got a few new tunes and he and I will also be writing together.” When I asked Fortus why he enjoyed playing with The Compulsions, he explained that, “It’s a great group of musicians. Also, nothing is over-thought. It’s what rock n’ roll should be – spontaneous, emotional and fun.”
On June 29th, Fortus will be stepping even further back into his past when he hooks up with Pale Divine for a so-called reunion show at The Pageant in St Louis.
“It was my very first band. I had lots of hair,” Fortus admits with a laugh. “I was in that band when I was fifteen and that’s when we started. We signed with Atlantic Records, put out a record called Straight To Goodbye, which was very telling, and we toured opening for the Psychedelic Furs. And then I started playing with the Furs.”
As Fortus explained in our first interview last spring, Pale Divine “were a big deal in the mid-west, we had a big cult following. It was like very alternative music; well, what they called alternative at the time, like college rock. We played all over the mid-west and had a big following and signed with Atlantic and toured opening for the Psychedelic Furs. Then I ended up playing with the Furs while we were on tour with them. After that tour, I’d been having a lot of problems with the singer in my band, and Richard Butler, the singer for the Furs, asked if I’d come up to New York and write a record with him for a solo record. We ended up making it a band because he felt that it wouldn’t be fair to call it a solo project since what I did was an equal thing. So we ended up starting a band called Love Spit Love.”
But probably the most exciting thing coming up for Fortus is playing the Uproar Festival tour with the band The Dead Daisies. Just announced on Tuesday, they will join Alice In Chains, Jane’s Addiction, Duff McKagan’s band Walking Papers, Coheed & Cambria, Danko Jones and other performers as they cross North America hitting amphitheaters from August through mid-September.
“I received a call from Charley Drayton. He’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever come in contact with and when he asks me to be involved with something, if it is at all possible, I will do it. Every time I work with Charley, I know that I will walk away a better musician.” Continued Fortus, “I have a lot of friends on that tour: Perry from Jane’s, the AIC guys, Duff, Danko, etc. It’s gonna be a blast! It’s sort of a dream-band situation. Jon Stevens is such an amazing singer and then you’ve got Marco Mendoza, who is one of my favorite bass players, and of course, Dizzy Reed, who will be joining us on this next tour, as well as my good friend David Lowy on guitar. It’s a very classic sounding band and is just so much fun to be a part of.”
Fortus also hopes to do some recording with them in the future. “With the caliber of players involved, writing and recording is going to be super easy and fun.”
The Dead Daisies recently did a jaunt through Australia opening for Aerosmith. “It was great,” Fortus says with a gleam in his eyes. “Aerosmith are still so great. I mean, they sound fantastic, they’re playing better than ever, they look great. It was so cool. I grew up listening to them. When I was a kid they were like the biggest band in the world. In 1976, 1977, they were huge. Them and Queen and I worshiped them. Like, I remember staring for hours at the inside of Live: Bootleg with all those photos and Joe Perry with the guitar across his back and playing one. It was just so cool to hang out and talk. I played through his whole rig. It was really fun.”
“I started playing violin when I was four, and drums as well. So that was always like my major passion,” Fortus told me previously regarding his love for playing music. And he always enjoys sharing a story from his past.
With his father having been an owner of a company that built guitars, Fortus was lucky to meet some of the music world’s most popular players. Before having to run off and get ready for the show in Houston, he told me about meeting Yes.
“I must have been twelve,” Fortus says, “and I was a huge Yes fan and I would go with the guys that worked for my dad, who would bring the guys guitars and made them instruments. In fact, the guitar that I grew up playing, that I really learned how to play on, there were two of them made: Steve Howe had one and I had the other. That guitar got stolen out of my friend’s apartment in New York but I got to do soundcheck with them. Everybody did it but Rick Wakeman. But everybody else had kids my age, like Chris and Steve. But they were all like super happy to see a kid, you know. It was fun. They were really nice to me and I got to play on Alan White’s kit.”
With so much on his plate, it doesn’t look like Fortus will be using his time off to soak up some sun on a sandy summer beach. The pull of playing rock & roll is just too strong.