Last night, my son and I took in Guns N’ Roses’ Vancouver show at “B.C. Place”, the big football/soccer stadium, its roof closed for the event. It was a fine show, even though I wasn’t and still am not much of a GnR fan. The show deserves a few words, and also arena-rock concert technology is changing in interesting ways.
The band · I impulse-bought the tickets when the show was announced. G&R have real cultural heft and I’d never seen them, seemed like a good enough reason.
There are things to like: The songs are good. And, I learned, they put on a long, polished, high-intensity show, really working hard to show the fans a good time.
Here’s the set list. Is that choice of covers weird or what? I suffered cognitive dissonance watching fresh-faced high-school girls, in carefully-constructed trashy-rock-chick black leather, howling gleefully along to Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, a 50-year-old song written by an 82-year old being performed by a 61-year-old.
But G&R has never really done it for me; I find Axl’s vocal histrionics frequently grating. Slash is flashy and has good riffs, but all of his solos sound like all of his other solos to me. The lyrics are often gratuitously nasty and ugly. Axl Rose has historically not been a good person, although in 2018 I was amused on Twitter at him going off his bad-boy brand.
Tech and staging · In my youth, I spent a few early years as the house stage manager for a few rock venues and got pretty familiar with the way things were done. In recent years, my musical tastes have become more niche-y, with the pleasant side effect that I attend concerts in clubs and small theatres. So I’ve been out of touch with Arena Rock.
Back in the day, in big venues, the show depended heavily on the use of monster spotlights like for example the Super Trouper. You might have been way back from the stage, but when someone was going to belt out a crucial lyric or run down the front of the stage to shred, the spots would light ’em up, obvious where to look.
No longer. At the show last night (see the photo above) the musicians were well-enough lit, but lacked that insane Super-Trouper glow. Which didn’t matter, because of the huge video screens highlighting whoever is currently the key performer. If you look close in that picture, you can see Slash on a little downstage-center platform, about as well as I could from where I was standing. So most of the people at the show are watching a live TV broadcast most of the time. Except when they’re looking at their phones which they’re using to record the broadcast.
I shouldn’t be so negative. I mean, it works, you get to see facial expressions and guitar moves and so on that you never would unless you were at the very front of the hall. And playing in front of Super Troupers was notoriously hard on the eyes, Abba even wrote a song about it: “Super Trouper beams are gonna blind me…”
Interestingly, G&R didn’t project themselves on the huge backing backing screen; that was a continuous video presentation, nicely correlated with the music, with an abstract sci-fi/horror aesthetic. Worked for me.
The sound · A tip o’ the hat to whoever in the G&R team hired the audio crew. They got sparkling sound in B.C. Place, which is not exactly a regular occurrence.
In particular, they changed the mix all the time. Every time there was a big guitar break, the instrument was unsubtly boosted for effect, and it was a good effect. Likewise for vocals and other instruments.
Now, those vocals. Axl Rose was getting a lot of unsubtle technology support for his singing. He would reach down to a device on his belt and adjust himself regularly between sections of a song, notably when switching between his normal mid-range voice and that trademarked Axl shriek. Possibly he’s just lost the high register and is having it added back synthetically? Also there were occasional shudder-and-buzz effects added unsubtly.
Sometimes it worked — I mean, you just can’t do Welcome To The Jungle without going to a glass-shattering yowl. Sometimes it sounded fakey. A couple of times it just didn’t work, Axl’s lips were moving but no sound was coming out.
Anyhow, glad I went, I loved the crowd, the youngsters in their rock-n-roll finery and the grizzled middle-agers in basic black. Parents with kids. Couples mooning, melting into each other during November Rain. The band does a great job on Live and Let Die. They worked hard to show me a good time and they did. Won’t go again.