Despite recent noises about the imminent arrival of Guns N' Roses' farcically overdue comeback album, Chinese Democracy, you suspect that nobody would be surprised if it failed to materialise. The same can be said of the band's sole remaining original member, W Axl Rose, a man whose diary entries are only ever in pencil. Earlier this week, the 44-year-old singer was a no-show at the Mojo awards, even though he was due to present a gong to his musical hero, Elton John. Unsurprising, then, that, right up until showtime tonight, people are anxious about his whereabouts.
To complicate matters, the gig is subject to a trial of new-fangled mobile ticketing technology. Instead of using traditional paper tickets, punters gain admittance with barcodes sent to their mobile phones. Some are questioning the logic of such an experiment at Guns' first British show in four years, but the trial goes swimmingly. Somewhat inevitably, it is Rose and co who hold things up.
By 10pm, they are already more than an hour late. Massed boos ring out loudly between the pre-recorded rock songs that blast from the Apollo's PA system. By 10.30pm, Metallica's "Master of Puppets" is taking on a new resonance, the still absent Rose clearly toying with us marionettes. A particularly disgruntled faction behind me begins to chant, "We want Slash!", and another 20 minutes trundle by in the stifling heat. Chinese democracy? This is Chinese torture.
Suddenly, the lights dim and flash-bomb explosions greet the opening notes of "Welcome to the Jungle." The old "tension, then release" trick works its magic, and Rose is instantly forgiven. He's wearing shades, a silver crucifix and the kind of garishly iridescent suit jacket you see in the "reduced" pile at designer clothes shops. You have to admit he has presence, though, and pretty soon he's doing his trademark side-winding dance to "It's So Easy" and "Mr Brownstone".
The set alternates between punky metal and shamelessly epic hard rock, the by-now- familiar cover of Paul McCartney and Wings' "Live and Let Die" milked for maximum drama. It's annoying, though, when, seemingly without irony, Rose thanks us for coming out early. His own tardiness means that punters with last trains to catch will miss tonight's encore, "Paradise City". Less reliant on public transport, the Queen guitarist Brian May and the model Elle Macpherson will stay to the end.
Sad to report, but the voice that was once a benchmark of hard-rock histrionics occasionally conjures a man suffering from the mother of all stomachaches. Indeed, on the outro section of "Sweet Child o' Mine", Rose's caterwauling renders Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal's facsimile re-creations of Slash's wonderful guitar lines somewhat redundant.
The band bludgeon on, their leader now wearing a black leather shirt. New songs such as "Better" and "IRN" sound decent enough on first listen, but it is "November Rain" and their cover of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" that get the biggest roars, one punter briefly grasping Rose's microphone to croon a few bars of the latter. "No sleep till Hammersmith?" yells the singer at one point, name-checking Motörhead's classic live album. "No sleep for the rest of the night!" But it's all right for him, of course - he's not working in the morning.
Guns N' Roses are - or were - one of the last great hard-rock bands, but Rose and his septet of hired hands are no match for the original, more compact line-up. With its flashy pyrotechnics, much of tonight's show is all gong and little dinner. Worse, service is very, very slow.
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