Guns N’ Roses stepped onto the Fillmore Silver Spring stage a few ticks after midnight Friday morning and didn’t pack it up until 3:04 a.m.
It wasn’t a rock concert. It was a hostage situation.
Where did these guys even find the gall to call themselves Guns N’ Roses? Led by the band’s only original member, frontman Axl Rose, this unfocused eight-man crew pranced and preened with the enthusiasm and talent of a tribute band. For three torturous hours, the guys sucked the life force from some of the most anthemic rock songs ever written — “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Paradise City” and “November Rain” among them.
To call it a train wreck wouldn’t be right. Train wrecks are fast and violent. This was like being stuck in gridlock traffic behind a garbage truck in August.
Since Guns N’ Roses’ beloved original lineup dissolved in the mid-’90s, Rose has become a master of this brand of show-biz sadism. In order to bask in his mediocrity, we must wait. Fans stuck around for 15 years as the man tinkered with “Chinese Democracy,” the 2008 opus that only proved how far he had fallen. Now, at age 50, Rose is touring with this version of Guns N’ Roses as the band prepares to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April.
Dreamers dreamed that this warm-up tour of relatively intimate club dates might include some of the band’s early members — guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan, drummer Steven Adler — that fantastic collision of characters that made Guns N’ Roses so magnetic 25 years ago when its album “Appetite for Destruction” gave rock-and-roll its last massive injection of sex and danger.
Instead, Rose has surrounded himself with sloppy, unimaginative players who make him sound dated, safe and sexless. They had no command of pace or rhythm Friday. Drum fills were dashed off. Guitar leads were hurried. And anytime Rose left the stage for one of the dozens of breathers he took throughout the set, the band would wander off into instrumental dead zones, as if trying to discover the intersection of pathetic and insulting. (They found it during a three-minute guitar solo over the “Pink Panther” theme.)
Vocally, Rose sounded battered but not beaten. His indelible screeching — half bird of prey, half race car brake pad — was never expected to last for a lifetime, but his voice sounded stronger than it should.
And he made up for any botched notes with those iconic moves, furiously pacing the stage, leaning against phantom walls, doing that snakey thing with his hips. His physicality was the only thing connecting him to a more glorious past.
So why did he keep leaving the stage? It served only as a repeated reminder of the Guns N’ Roses we weren’t seeing.
The primary stench emanated from Frank Ferrer’s drum kit as he carelessly let the songs slip out of focus. It felt most egregious during the finale of “November Rain,” as he turned those riveting rat-a-tat snare hits into lazy thwickity-thwacks.
More embarrassing: the Slash pantomime performed by guitarist DJ Ashba. He seems to have been hired for his ability to wear a top hat, play a Les Paul and smoke cigarettes simultaneously.
Even the group’s most veteran members — bassist Tommy Stinson and pianist Dizzy Reed — failed to bring dignity to these songs. Back to noodling at Guitar Center, all of you!
“Ya’ hangin’ in there?” Rose asked before “Shackler’s Revenge,” a song from “Chinese Democracy” that even fans in “Chinese Democracy” T-shirts seemed annoyed by. It was 1:59 a.m. Sixty-five more minutes to go.
A distended version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was followed by the evening’s only real stage banter: Rose reminiscing about the legendary Baltimore rock club Hammerjacks. “I remember Maryland,” he told the thinning crowd. Yet somehow, this non-story felt endearing, reminding us that there was a human being up there trying to be great again. Stockholm syndrome had officially set in. Encore! Encore!
Exhausted applause at 2:31 a.m. earned the audience another gratuitous guitar solo interlude, two more tunes from “Chinese Democracy,” the acoustic ballad “Patience” — irony! — and the band’s signature, “Paradise City.”
Fans sang along with new zeal, perhaps realizing the song’s double-time finale meant their freedom: “Take me down to the paradise city / Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty / Oh, won’t you please take me home?”
Yes, yes, yes. Let’s all get home safely and quickly. Tomorrow, we start trying to forget this night ever happened.