Apparently, this whole being-a-rock-star business is like riding a bike. Axl Rose has been gone for a while — as you may know — but during his show Wednesday night at the Forum in Tampa it was as if he hadn't forgotten a thing. The edgy charisma, the watchability, the gobbling up of the stage, the pushing of the audience's buttons — all there, just like it was 1988.
The show was billed as Guns N' Roses, and I'll spare you the gripe that the other original members have not re-enlisted. But this was unmistakably Axl's show. He brought along a small army of guitarists — OK, three of 'em — and they did their level best to sip a bit of the spotlight, each one throwing down major histrionics during solos. Axl accommodated them by slipping off stage a few times. Ultimately, though, they were the worker bees, as were the bassist, drummer and two keyboardists, on hand to provide a sturdy musical backdrop for the star.
Axl almost didn't hit until Thursday. It was 11:45 p.m. when the house lights went down. A lone guitarist came out and sprayed some licks around, rousing a crowd that was well short of a sell-out. Axl slid onto the darkened stage, the lights kicked in, and there he stood, his body thicker, his tightly braided hair tied back in a ponytail. He wore shades (which he later discarded), jeans and what looked to be a leather shirt.
They opened with "Welcome to the Jungle," and Axl executed lacerating high notes and stuttering na-na-nas with vim and gusto. The show did not pimp the new, due-any-time-now GNR album. In the first hour or so, Axl and his sidemen performed "Sweet Child O' Mine," "Live and Let Die," "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," and some other old Gunners tunes. Leading a sing-along during "Heaven's Door," Axl remarked to the crowd with mock formality, "I don't think we've reached our full potential;" then after a calibrated pause he lit into a long shriek. Everyone lost it. I smiled. A masterstroke.
Axl stalked the entire stage, and went mercifully easy on that slip-slidey dance that always made me cringe. He spread his arms and stomped around in a circle, like a faux Native American dance. He slung the mic stand around. He bounded and jumped and slithered. You couldn't take your eyes off him.
Meanwhile, I could barely stand to look at Sebastian Bach, the erstwhile Skid Row frontman who opened the evening with a too-long set. It was even harder listening to him. His constant caterwaul — not to mention his hyper, "fuck"-laced stage patter — was supremely annoying.
Papa Roach fared far better. As the only contemporary rock band on the triple bill, the guys had the unenviable task of playing for a mostly older crowd that had turned out to see an icon. By the end of a crisp set, it looked as if Papa Roach had won a few converts — not me; their style, metal laced with rap and a splash of emo, just isn't my thing. Still, I had to respect how they gave it up.
I've gotta come clean and tell you that I left the GNR show after a little more than an hour. My bad, I know, but my days of writing deadline reviews for a daily paper, where you had to stay 'til the last note, are long in the past, so I exercised my right to split. It'd been a long night. Besides, I really had really come to see if weird, reclusive Axl Rose, a dude who seems to have rock star imprinted in his DNA, could still bring it. He could, and did.