Our review of Guns N' Roses' performance during the first weekend of the Austin City Limits Festival offered a reasonably straightforward take from Ramon Ramirez that admirably covered why their fans hold them in such high regard.
So it seems fair to say right up front that this has never been a band that resonated with me. But it's weekend two, and our Austin360 crew uses the fest's second go-round largely to seek out things that might be less obvious choices for us, or simply acts we weren't able to catch the first time around. So I parked myself at the American Express stage from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday night, game to give the band a full airing.
There was no "a-ha" moment, no lightbulb that went off illuminating what I've been missing all these years. Thinking back on why that was, it occurred to me that there are certain things you probably have to like in order for GNR to appeal to you. Here's a list of five, counting down to the most important.
5. Posturing. This is a pretty quintessential rock-band characteristic, and it's fair to say that GNR has it down far better than most. From singer Axl Rose's sneers and struts, to guitarist Slash's general coolsville aura, to bassist Duff McKagan's no-prisoners presence, they play the part well. But you have to like that about rock bands to begin with to buy in. If you lean more toward bands who tend to make fun of such posturing — like, say, the Replacements — this is not likely to be a draw. (And yes, I realize the irony of the reference I cited, given that Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson spelled McKagan in the GNR lineup for a decade or so.)
4. Long songs. A little over an hour into GNR's set Friday, I stopped to count the number of songs they'd played and figured out that, on average, their songs were clocking in at about six and a half minutes. GNR loves the extended jam, which is great if you're there to just rock out with them. But if you're the type who appreciates concision and editing in songwriting and performing — basically, pare down the stuff that doesn't really need to be there — this isn't going to be a selling point.
3. Dynamics. Or, more specifically, the dearth of them. No doubt part of GNR's appeal is their full-tilt sonic assault, and it was indeed impressive out of the gate on Friday. But by the time they got past "Welcome to the Jungle" (song four in the set), it seemed OK to shift gears a little bit. That never really came until Rose went to the piano for "November Rain," but by then the stretch of two-plus hours with the foot on the gas had dulled the senses to some of their energy. And while dynamics isn't the same as volume, on this night GNR cranked it up enough that my Facebook feed was filled with posts from Austinites who could feel the noize from up to 5 miles away. This was one of the lessons that bands such as the Pixies and Nirvana learned well: Loud stands out more when you balance it with quiet moments.
2. Guitar solos. Slash is quite obviously one of the best guitarists in rock, and his spotlight solo that finally gave way to the all-time-great riff opening "Sweet Child O' Mine" near the end of the set was without question the concert's crowning moment. But between Slash's pull toward the weedly-wee jam and plenty more from his counterpart Richard Fortus — who, in should be noted, plays his Ron Wood role perfectly in this lineup — you have to hold guitar solos in high regard to fully appreciate GNR. Otherwise you'll spend a lot of minutes at a GNR show just waiting for the band to get on with it already.
1. Axl's voice. This isn't limited to GNR by any means, certainly: I've long believed that the number one factor in determining personal likability of pop-vocal music is whether or not the singer appeals to you. I understand, for example, why some folks are turned off by distinctive singers I happen to love (Victoria Williams comes to mind). But it's exaggerated in the case of Rose, whose particular blend of screech-and-whine lifts annoyance to a new level, for me. Other things about him I appreciate, such as his willingness to speak his mind about sociopolitical issues, and even his awkward fashion sense. (The flannel-shirt-tied-around-the-waist accent to his Friday wardrobe was just ridiculous enough to be kind of sublime.) But in the end, I'll never be able to connect with GNR, first and foremost because of the way he sings.
In the end, I can only say in my defense that I tried. For a solid 150 minutes, I tried. The only cure may be another dose of The Cure on Saturday night at ACL Fest. Now Robert Smith, that's a voice I can abide.
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