Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
December 9th 1991

- David Fricke, Rolling Stone

For once, Axl Rose had a good excuse for coming on an hour and a half late: He was sick, bitten by a demon flu that left him throwing up backstage between songs. Rose's illness accounted for both his extended absences from the stage and the rocky pacing of the show. Slash - looking, in his top hat and Cousin It curls, like the cover of T. Rex's Sliver come to life - covered for Rose with overlong guitar solos, and bassist Duff McKagan stepped in with a couple of lead vocals of his own. Rose also kept his stage oratory to a minimum, indulging in a brief anti-rock press rant "so the parasites looking for a meal ticket have something to write about" and making only a passing reference to departed guitarist Izzy Stradlin when he introduced new boy Gilby Clarke ("We got somebody who felt a little more like touring and hanging out with us").

But in spite of Rose's handicap, the Gunners didn't cheat on show time - nearly three hours - or shake appeal. When they were good, they rose to the heights of feral hysteria from Appetite For Destruction and the best parts of the Use Your Illusion twins. Once they hit the boards (to a tape of Leonard Cohen singing "Everybody Knows" - "Everybody knows that the dice are loaded Everybody knows the good guys lost"), they ripped straight into "Nightrain" and "Mr. Brownstone," Rose racing all over the multitiered stage and hurling his mike stand javelin-style into the air, usually in a dangerous proximity to another Gunner. "Civil War," arguably the band's finest seven minutes on record, was a fierce, intensely focused serving of slow-burn agit-slam, sandwiched by Slash's burbling wah-wah quotations from Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)."

Even when they stumbled, the band members showed flashes of inspiration. "Don't Cry" was unwisely shoehorned between a storming "It's So Easy" and a long, unremarkable drum solo by Matt Sorum, but this rendition packed a greater anthemlike wallop than in the two Illusion versions. A formulaic reading of "Sweet Child O' Mine" was prefaced by Rose's soulful a cappella crooning of Grand Funk Railroad's "Bad Time" just as Slash hit the piercing signature riff of "Sweet Child."

The main downer of Guns N' Roses extramusical reputation and Axl Rose's loose-cannon antics is that they obscure the band's real rock & roll worth. Tonight, they ran the gamut from the sublime (a ravishing twin-guitar snippet of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" by Slash and Clarke) to the seething (a ferocious "Double Talkin' Jive") to the silly (a female brass section and backup singers decked out in heavy-metal harlot lingerie). As for their aversion to punctuality, it's become a kind of ritualized anarchy, which is a contradiction in terms. Besides, the best rock & roll - and rock & roll spirit - is about not wasting time: it's about seizing the moment and jump-starting the vibe, not just waiting for it to hit. If Guns N' Roses really want to be unpredictable, they should try a surprise attack: Get the opening band offstage pronto, plug in straightaway and whip into "Nightrain" or, better yet, "Don't Damn Me" (alas, not in tonight's set) before the fans know what hit 'em.

Time and the next album (whenever that comes) will tell how they recover from the loss of Stradlin, who was a formidable rhythm guitarist and a key songwriter. But the primal GN'R snarl of "You Could Be Mine" - delivered tonight with vehement enthusiasm - was vivid proof that there is still a lot more here than makes the headlines. "That was gun," Rose announced with a smile afterward. Amen to that.