Guns n Roses – Live in Rio Review

wp_20161116_005-3So, a few months back I wrote a piece on the much lauded Guns n Roses “reunion”, saying what an awful idea it was. My argument was basically that it was a cynical money making venture and that Axl could not and would not cut it, as he has been largely shit for the last 20 years. I also suggested that the shows would be nowhere near as good as they were back in the day and that it was one more nostalgic nail in the coffin of modern rock.

However.

Then I saw the videos of the performances from the U.S and it was pretty damn obvious that Axl was actually cutting it. Maybe not like a hot knife through butter, but there were high notes and enthusiasm, and not just in GnR, but in AC/DC too. And with a broken foot.

Then, as the tour showed little sign of imploding and actually decided to roll on down to South America, what else could I do, but see for myself. wp_20161116_005-2

So the question is, did I eat my words?

Kinda.

After a functional set from the uninspired choice of opening act, Brazilian rockers Plebe Rude, and a surprisingly short interval, in which we got to see the really quite beautiful logo variations on the backdrop, the Looney Tunes theme blared out and it was showtime.

‘It’s So Easy’ kicked things off and we all went mental. Seriously. Once upon a time Guns n Roses was known as the most dangerous band in the world and for the first 15 minutes or so it was easy to see why. The crowd was like a raging sea as it bounced as one to the punk energy of the opener and the swagger of ‘Mr. Brownstone’, even ‘Chinese Democracy’ got people jumping before the teased intro to ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ eventually sent everyone ballistic. For a few moments Axl, Slash, Duff and Co rocked as hard as they ever did; sure they are a little slower and a little rounder, but they still know how to deliver a good old fashioned hard rock banger.

‘Double Talkin’ Jive’ immediately calmed things down a little and calm they stayed, for the underrated ‘Better’ and an absolutely epic performance of ‘Estranged’. Despite proving spectacular and one of the highlights of the night, this was the first of many rather indulgent mega ballads – we got them all, bar ‘Patience’.

‘Live and Let Die’ was predictably frantic, prior to the cool bass groove of the sorely underrated ‘Rocket Queen’; the already lengthy track gaining an extended midsection and sexy skeletons on the backdrop. There was another surprise in ‘Out Ta Get Me’ before the heroin chic of the tireless Duff McKagan pounded out the bass riff to ‘You Could Be Mine’ to get the crowd bouncing again. Although Axl was mostly excellent, reaching most of the high notes, it was here and more notably on ‘Coma’ that he struggled – the fast sections tripping him up a little. A mid set breather was due – cue Duff and his version of the Misfits‘Attitude’.

img-20161119-wa0002-2‘This I Love’ preceded the epics ‘Civil War’ and ‘Coma’ before the obligatory Slash solo of Speak Softly Love (Love Theme From The Godfather). It was all great stuff and the top hatted one still shreds, but the dude has been playing the same damn thing since I was a kid – talk about playing it safe. Was it then necessary to do an instrumental duet with Richard Fortus on ‘Wish You Were Here’? Sure, it was awesome, the crowd sung it, people cried and Slash and Richard nailed it, but two solo slots?
Sandwiched in between were the unbeatable ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ and the surprisingly fun ‘Yesterdays’, which proved much more enjoyable in the live arena than on record. In a neat twist they then segued ‘Wish You Were Here’ into the piano outro from ‘Layla’ to get Axl on the piano.

Only one song could follow, and follow it did. On the one hand November Rain epitomizes everything that is pretentious and overblown about GnR and can so easily turn into an awful lumbering spectacle of over indulgence. Thankfully though, the front man seems to be in a good place right now, despite him and Slash virtually ignoring each other all night, and he crooned his way though with technique and urgency, delivering one of the best vocals of the night. For some reason most of the crowd seemed to have balloons to go with cell phones and it all made for a quite beautiful spectacle, even more so as the massive full moon emerged above the stadium right on cue – I guess these kind of shared moments are the whole point of such nostalgic outings. Fair play Axl.img-20161117-wa0007-2

Two hours in and the vocalist was visibly enjoying himself as he rolled back the years to dart around the stage to conduct the crowd in a sing off on ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’. By now it was utterly shameless enjoyment of timeless classics, and we were certainly getting our money’s worth.
We rocked again for set closer ‘Nightrain’, but it was back to the ballads in the encore of ‘Don’t Cry’ with more extended guitar work. The Who‘s ‘The Seeker’ offered an irresistibly big riff, but we were really only waiting for ‘Paradise City’ to rock to an explosive close. And it did not disappoint – mosh pits opened up, swathes of bodies bounced as one and it was genuinely wild abandon in the crush – it almost felt like 1990 again.

The crowd actually demanded another encore, but the band returned merely to take a bow, all hugs and smiles.
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So, all in all, I guess you have to take your hat off to Guns n Roses – they are still a mighty proposition and deliver a fine performance. They are seasoned pros and know how to work a stage and get a crowd going, despite the minimal interaction between band members and between band and crowd.
Are they still dangerous? Not really, but they do rock and they are a pretty tight unit; they put on a show but it’s not over produced and works well with less people on stage – no horns, no backing singers, a cool backdrop of images and minimal pyrotechnics keeps it lean.

Is Axl the vocalist he was 25 years ago? He’s a damn sight closer to it now than he has been in the last 15 years. His range is impressive and he works the mic, but the impression is that age has taken it’s toll a little and slowed up the delivery, there may be an element of tiredness too.

Are they just in it for the money? Surely that is a factor, but then again they do seem to be enjoying themselves, so I’ll reserve judgement. Also, they may be raking in the cash, but at two and a half hours long their set is pretty damn good value.

Is it all just shameless nostalgia? Sure, of course, but when you are this good and the material still cuts it, then why the hell not? Quite how long the night train can roll on without new product though is open to question, as is whether or not the relationships will endure. In the meantime though, they are well worth the trip down memory lane.

Rock in Rio – Literally

Despite having lived in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro, for the last thirteen years, I will readily admit to not being the most assiduous follower of the Brazilian music scene. There is some stuff that I really like, a whole load of stuff that I steer well clear of and a gaping black hole in between. Basically, I use the excuse that I just don’t have the time, but the simple fact is that I mostly prefer English language music, which is a little short-sighted of me. However, as recent experience has highlighted how difficult the music industry has become for new bands in England nowadays, it got me wondering about the situation here, so I decided it was high time I found out what was going on. In fact, I didn’t have to look very far; between ex-students, good friends, friends and relatives of other students and a handful of acquaintances I suddenly had access to a whole host of local bands, perfect for comparing the grass roots scene here with what goes on back home.

Primarily, I wanted to know about the difficulties faced by upcoming bands in Rio de Janeiro and the unanimous response was that outside of the Lapa district in Rio, there is a distinct lack of venues with high quality sound and an appropriate infrastructure. Personally, I put this down to a lack of pub culture, no sweaty beer soaked backrooms or spit and sawdust venues here, but the complex legal system and, at times, lack of adherence to is also a factor. Throw in the fact that if you can actually find a place to play, getting paid for it is a mission in itself, because not only are gigs badly paid, it is also par for the course for venue owners/promoters to pay late – we are talking weeks or months – no musicians union backing here. Also, according to Alexandre Daumerie of the “On The Rock” project, “That’s when they don’t ask you to play for free, which many unknown bands will often do just to show their work and get the exposure”.

In fact, the basic consensus is that there is not much money to be made unless you are playing covers of popular music or are willing to sweat blood for your art, and even then you won’t get paid what you deserve and you’ll have the demands of promoters to contend with. One reputable promotor that I spoke to, Vitor Da Cunha Gomes of A Conspiração Produções e Eventos, who moonlights as the bassist in metal core group Ambstract, goes as far as to suggest that to get on a relatively interesting bill “you have to sell a pornographic number of tickets for the event promoter, and the bands that do so are not always top quality (cover bands etc), so the event ends up full of poor bands that bring down the level.” Vitor’s company goes against the flow by only inviting bands with their seal of approval, with good material and marketing, and that are supportive of the local scene.

The proliferation of covers acts and the willingness of bars to book them as an attraction, also means that even bands with a strong local following are battling for space in the market. João Paulo Barreira of Barcamundi goes a little further still, citing “a lack of incentives for independent culture on the part of public organs, as well as a certain disinterest of the majority of the public for original music or for that not endorsed by mass media.”

This lack of interest on the part of the public could be a reflection of the dynamic of the class system here. In England basically you have a working class spectrum, so any given venue can pull people in democratically, whereas here you have a working class chasm between the haves and have nots, which is reflected in the public frequenting certain venues. The paradox here is that the bands making alternative, indie or rock tend to be from middle class backgrounds but don’t have access to middle class venues. Ok, so I admit that this is something of a sweeping generalization, but the point is that the structure and tastes of society here is a far more complex issue than in the UK.

Eduardo Marcolino of progressive rockers Anxtrongoes deeper into the issue of apathy on the part of the public: “many people are satisfied with free online material and don’t bother going to shows. Besides, almost nobody pays for an album anymore, making recording even more costly as it doesn’t generate much return.” Sound familiar English bands?

As such, the influence of the internet is frighteningly similar the world over, with bands more often than not peaking at the thousand true fans level and living in the hope of going viral or getting picked up by the mass media. In the meantime it’s online marketing and social media to divulge the new material, show etc, and just like in the UK (and probably the rest of the world) Brazilian acts love the fact that they have control over how they appear to the world and how they communicate with their fans. However, João Paulo´s guitarist in Barcamundi, Leon, makes the pertinent observation that number of likes/followers can be a doubtful indicator and just because one band has 20k “fans”, while another has the faithful thousand, it doesn’t mean the first band is 20 times more popular than the other. João completes the idea by saying “It’s necessary to work, make contacts, rehearse and publicize your band in the real world, but with the help of the internet.”

Although the internet is seen by all concerned as a useful tool in terms of publicity, especially given Brazil’s highly digitalized society, being social media savvy is quite simply not enough. Why?

Two words:

Organizações Globo.

Globo is one of the most powerful media organisations in the world and its influence here in Brazil is nothing less than massive. What little space they give to music, is dedicated to the mainstream or established “alternative” acts, as well as for more traditional Brazilian styles such as Sertanejo (Country), Samba, Pagode, Axé and even Funk Carioca. Even their coverage of Rock in Rio is a little limited, with the Sunset stage (the b-stage) only shown on one of their satellite channels, which does go to redress the balance a little by also showing events like Lollapalooza, but the homegrown programmes on the music channel are very old guard. So basically if Globo is behind you or willing to give you a shot, this will open a lot of doors, as in the case of Scalene, but if you are not a media darling, which most indie and alternative acts tend not to be, otherwise they wouldn’t be called alternative, getting any media exposure outside of social networks is gonna be difficult.

OK, so Globo is by no means the only media outlet in the country, but they lead by example and most other outlets tend to follow suit, so the indie/rock/alternative scene is very much an underground one. However, according to Vitor of A Conspiração and Fabricio Figueiredo of Útero Ruídosproductions it is a thriving scene and there is a lot of talent in Rio. Both suggested that São Paulo has a better infrastructure while Rio has the better bands. When I asked about how competitive the scene was, there was agreement that, as in England, in general it tends to be one of mutual support and incentive, despite the fight for attention and the occasional envious eye on another band’s success.
Vitor: “I always like to watch the local bands and see how they are doing well, recently there’s been an enormous improvement in the quality of the bands; they’re making music that’s getting richer and more elaborate, which always makes me want to improve.”

He goes on to cite a number of interesting local bands that cover the entire rock spectrum, far too many to mention here, but I checked out as many as I could and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Menores Atos, Cervical, Lougo Mouro and the one that particularly caught my eye, Parola, who play a highly competent brand of Brazilian Hard Rock.

As for other aspects of band life, just like their British counterparts it’s a labour of love here too. Having to run a band part-time means rehearsing only once a week and long term plans remain un-ambitious, the focus being on improving and continuing to enjoy playing, whilst hopefully building a competent body of work. So, all in all being in an indie or alternative rock band in Brazil has all the difficulties of the British scene plus a whole host of structural and cultural questions thrown in for good measure.

Nevertheless, there has to be some kind of middle ground between this level of virtual obscurity and media endorsed mega stardom, and just as English bands are starting to find with forward thinking indie labels and innovative PR companies, there is life beyond the DIY circuit and outside the limited rosters of the major labels. Companies such as Útero are working like a creative hub for artists where they can gain access to expertise in production, recording and mixing, creation of audio-visual projects, fundraising and distribution.

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Fabricio Figueiredo explained that Útero’s vision actually goes beyond the artist; they see the lack of know-how on the local music scene as an opportunity to help stimulate and organise the market, providing a safe haven for artists to get their work produced and a focus for fans to connect with quality sounds. By coordinating the activities of studios, musicians, promoters, venues and fans they work as a catalyst for artistic projects and an opinion maker on the local scene. However, their vision goes beyond the local; the video they recorded for Rebeca Sauwen being one of the factors getting her on to The Voice.

Therefore, despite the apparent difficulties of the Brazilian music scene, it is by no means all doom and gloom, especially when you not only have talented performers, but also forward thinking individuals willing to stimulate the music industry in the name of art. Given a more sober vision of the music business, as is already being seen in the big international markets, there is no reason why we cannot form a sound middle class of music operating way above the thousand true fans level, but without the necessity to be the next big thing; whether it’s Brasil (sic) or back in the UK.

Rock in Rio – First Weekend Reaction

The first weekend of Rock in Rio’s nostalgia fest came and went in fairly spectacular fashion, with Queen and One Republic camping up the Friday night, Motley Crue and Metallica the Saturday and Rod Stewart and Elton John the Sunday. Judging by the euphoric reactions of the crowds in the crush at the front of the stage and the outpourings on social media, a good time was had by all.

On the Friday, a highly competent performance from One Republic was followed by the improbable combination of Queen & Adam Lambert, which was surprisingly spectacular with some truly spine tingling moments; notably those with video footage of Freddie, although Adam proved himself more than up to the task. In fact, hats off to the former Idol contestant for being one of the bravest men in rock, not only is he one of the few openly gay performers around, he has had the courage to step into the biggest gay shoes ever, and rather than it turning into a crass imitation of a hero, Adam has put his own identity onto the band, whilst maintaining respect for the past. Ok, so maybe to some it doesn’t feel quite right hearing another singer do Freddie’s songs, but they were well sung, and interestingly, Adam’s youth brings a freshness to the performance that other older acts, particularly Elton, were seriously missing.

It would be easy to critisize Roger Taylor and Brian May for continuing Queen as a band; I mean they took the easy way out and John Deacon wanted no part of it, but when you have the material and the possibility of playing to enormous crowds at the drop of a hat, the temptation must have been too great. Sure, it would’ve been far more admirable for the trio to continue with a new singer, in a new band, under a different name, with new material, but maybe they just didn’t feel up to it creatively; it must be difficult to conjure up that kind of hunger; but by getting a much younger singer involved it has given the project a little more vibrance than the previous incarnation with Paul Rogers, and in the meantime, Adam Lambert is taking the opportunity to get himself known worldwide; they even showcased one of his own tracks, the hard rocking ‘Ghost Town’, which slipped in effortlessly alongside Queen’s own material. Obviously, haters gonna hate, but he’s setting himself up for future stardom, so fair play.

Saturday was the first of the three metal days and Korn certainly rocked the Sunset Stage with a fine performance. The British duo of Royal Blood came, saw, and though they didn’t exactly conquer, put on a quality show to win over some new fans, their closing song including an off the cuff ‘Paranoid’ riff that got the crowd going.

Motley Crüe brought their R.I.P tour to South America for their first and last show in Brazil and, musically speaking, nailed it. They worked the stage like pros with plenty of movement and some entertaining pyrotechnics; Nikki and Tommy were as tight as a rhythm section can get and the walking cadaver that is Mick Mars was nothing short of superb. Mötley Crüe really are underrated, their image often overshadowing their technical abilities and their songwriting skills; that most of these songs are from the height of hair metal yet still stand up is testament to their talent. However, Vince Neil sadly let the side down. At first I thought it was down to a poor mix, the vocal being almost inaudible, but once it was sorted it was apparent that he wasn’t actually singing all the words; he’d skip prepositions, or kinda mumble more difficult sections, or just not even try, leaving it to the back up girls. Sorry, but it is definitely time for the band to call it a day, that way Nikki can concentrate on the exciting Sixx A.M project and Mick can finally get some rest – I love Crüe, but it’s time to let them go.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Metallica, last time they were here they were pushing ‘Through the Never’, so we got brand Metallica, this time round though, thankfully it was band Metallica. They gave a high quality well honed performance and rocked the Palco Mundo hard! There was plenty of power on display and you could sense their enthusiasm, although now and again they do come across as a little too contrived; kinda scripted. For instance, when James screams “Please God, help me!” in the middle of ‘One’ it’s like he’s doing it because that is what he’s supposed to say at that point, perhaps some new material will help keep them fresh, otherwise they are in danger of going down the Elton John road.

Unfortunately, Elton and many other performers are precisely that, performers, like actors reciting their lines, they are showmen delivering precisely what the crowd expect, which is perfectly ok, the crowd go home happy and Elton and co. get the adulation they so rightly deserve, as well as the pay check, obviously. What is seriously lacking though is that bit of fire that adds some real emotion to the show; there’s no hunger, no conviction. Put it like this, Elton’s drummer is a smiley white haired gentleman in a suit and tie; highly competent he may well be, but he sure as hell ain’t hungry for this. I don’t blame Elton and his more than able band, people want to see them, so they play and everyone has a good time; but as a casual observer, the only thing sending shivers down my spine was my A/C. I watched 10m of John Legend, who I don’t even like, and got goosebumps 3 times. Elton delivered the line “rolling like thunder under the covers” in such lukewarm fashion all I could imagine was the thunder as his gargantuan frame creaks the springs as David rolls him over to stop the snoring, not quite the intended sentiment me thinks.

Thank god then for Rod, surrounded by the young and eager and still pretty sprightly himself, his show was fun, energetic and well worth watching. He managed to breathe some life into old material, he gave space to showcase the talent around him and he worked the stage ceaselessly. Just goes to show that the highly lucrative nostalgia circuit needn’t be stale, as Rod and Queen proved, with a bit of young blood and a rethink of how things are done there’s life in the old dogs yet.

Rock in Rio 2015 – Preview

The sixth edition of Rock in Rio kicks off this Friday for its now biannual shindig since coming back to home turf in 2011 and there’s plenty for the discerning rock fan to look forward to, or totally avoid(!), during its seven days spread over two weekends.
The Rock in Rio franchise is now one of the biggest and most successful shows on the festival circuit with editions in places as diverse as Lisbon and Las Vegas, but it’s the Rio edition which holds all the kudos. There’s a kind of nostalgic charm about it that never fails to capture the imagination of the Brazilian public, even though São Paulo’s Lollapolooza may be better organised and consistently puts together a far superior line-up.
RiR is Brazil’s Woodstock; with previous, often chaotic, editions talked about with an air of mythical awe, it has become a kind of rite of passage for the youth of today, if only for them to be able to say “Eu fui” – the trade mark T-shirt which announces to the world that you were there. I’ve got mine from 2001. But it’s not just for the youth, the often old fashioned bill also attracts a somewhat older festival goer maybe aiming to recapture a bit of that inexplicable nostalgic feel. Why else would they pay through the nose to get to the arse end of Rio on a freighted bus (no cars allowed) to stand under the burning Rio sun to watch bands as diverse as A-ha and Lamb of God? Because it’s Rock in fucking Rio baby!!!
Anyway this year the organisers have outdone themselves in the nostalgia stakes, there’s Queen, Rod, Elton, the aforementioned A-ha, Faith no More and Metallica, for the third consecutive edition, just in case you missed their merciless self promotion last time round when the plugging of ‘Through the Never’ was at fever pitch. You can’t help but feel the organizer are short changing the Brazilian public just a little. Even so, the festival does actually give a chance to more recent successes like Slipknot, System of a Down and One Republic, while pop icons like Katy Perry, Rhianna and Sam Smith also get their shot. There is also the occasional younger band like The Script or Royal Blood, but they are gonna have to work their asses off because more often than not the crowd are there to go mad for their heroes or just for the occasion, it’s not the same hardcore indie crowd of Lolla; throw in the local obsession for constant cell phone use, the banning of selfie sticks notwithstanding, and the scalding heat and you have a recipe for early evening apathy. Royal Blood in particular will have their work cut out this Saturday, people won’t have heard of them and basically everyone will be there to see Metallica, so even Motley Crüe will need to be on top form, especially with Korn likely to pull a big crowd over to the second stage.
So after Queen, One Republic and The Script kick things off tonight, it’s full on metal on Saturday, with Metallica’s repeat performance likely to take all the spoils, before Sunday’s very British, very old line up of Seal, Elton John and Rod Stewart on the main stage, while John Legend and Magic, who just might steal everybody’s thunder, take on the Sunset stage. More to follow…