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First Night: Guns N' Roses, Reading Festival

Axl flounders as Reading made to wait for its rock fix

The boos must echo through Axl Rose's dressing room.

An hour after he and the shattered substitutes for his band, Guns N' Roses, are due onstage, he still refuses to walk out to play to his public. When he does, with the title track for the album Chinese Democracy, which it took him 18 ludicrous years to finish, the boos barely relent. The Reading Festival's proud British rock crowd treat this exhausted, insulting star with contempt.

At the end of the first night of what may end as a legendary Reading Festival, the car crash that was expected of Rose duly piled into a wall.

His scraped-smooth, red-raw skin makes Mickey Rourke's look normal. His cheap silver jacket looks like one you might pick up outside a Las Vegas gig by a Guns N' Roses tribute act, who would play with more commitment. His voice loosely recalls Cartman, South Park's eight-year-old anarchist, when whining about his homework.

The early part of the set includes cult tracks from Guns N'Roses' debut album, Appetite for Destruction, from which fans stagger away in shame. The Replacements' bassist Tommy Stinson has been dragooned into what might mercifully be Axl's last stand. He can do nothing for the sad, slack stumble this band has become. Even "Welcome to the Jungle" is dribbled out with no meaning. Fireworks flare to fool the rubes, Axl sputters, and lets his career die. Only the bell-boy still owed money at whatever Royal Berkshire hotel he's staying after this nightmarish one-night stand might wish him well, for one night only.

For "Sweet Child O' Mine", he changes into a red check shirt that would go down well in a country bar on a slow Monday. He tinkles away at a keyboard – as if he's an artist – but never says sorry when he falls far short. The contempt of this tinny, redundant show by a blissfully ignorant ex-star is mutual long before the end.

Last year's Reading was the dullest in memory. But there's far more potential this year for the chaos, anarchy and inspiration rock'n'roll always promises. Guns N' Roses suggest you be careful what you wish for. But Pete Doherty's reformed The Libertines, due tomorrow, along with the highly anticipated return of exuberant critics' favourites Arcade Fire, promise explosive behaviour. As does a defiant reconnection with Reading's headbanging, hard-rock spirit, from Queens of the Stone Age on Friday to Blink 182 at the weekend's close.

The increasingly middle-class and mature nature of newer festivals such as Latitude and Cornbury has never been Reading's way. The rock festival as teenage rite of passage and test of endurance always comes into its own as tents start to sink out of sight, and cleanliness is left behind for the weekend, along with mum and dad.

The unlikely sight of the baking, cracked moonscape of Glastonbury this June – where festival-goers more used to taking precautions for trenchfoot suffered blistered skin from the endless sun – was suddenly a fond memory, when Reading in its early hours looked set to be a swamp. The sun and cloud of a typical late summer evening, and the unimpressively ankle-high spatters on the boots of those jostling to see Friday's first big names, Lostprophets and Biffy Clyro, meant a real, blackly liquid mudbath would, in fact, be averted. Many were disappointed at that. But the contempt for Axl confirmed that there was a real rock festival waiting to take place.