There was a time that Guns N' Roses seemed like the most vital band in rock & roll -- or maybe that's just the hype talking. There certainly was a time when the L.A. quintet seemed raw, rude, even dangerous -- especially when compared to such righteous rockers as U2 or R.E.M. There was something refreshing about a band that could provoke everything from devotion to hatred, especially since both sides were equally correct. There hadn't been a hard rock band this raw or talented in years, and they were given added weight by Axl Rose's primal rage, the sound of confused, frustrated white trash vying for his piece of the pie. He occasionally slipped into misogyny, bigotry, and pure violence (most notoriously on "One in a Million," where he somehow manage to distill every form of prejudice and hatred into one five-minute tune), but that's what made him fascinating. As the '80s became the '90s, there simply wasn't a more interesting band around, and their long-awaited follow-up to Appetite for Destruction seemed destined to set the pace for the decade to come. As it turned out, that wasn't the case at all. Guns N' Roses released their two-part Use Your Illusion set in September 1991, the same month their label released Nirvana's Nevermind. Use Your Illusion was messy but fascinating, filled with nasty hard rock and art-rock epics -- revealing that the notorious homophobe had aspirations of being a cross between Elton John and Freddie Mercury. It was the furthest thing from Appetite, Vol. 2, as was Nevermind, but that album was like a mirror image of Appetite -- a tortured blast of cathartic hard rock. It made the Illusions seem like indulgent relics, possibly even dating from the '70s. Rose handled the sea change by becoming a dictator, or at least a petty tyrant. His in-concert temper tantrums became legendary, even going so far as inciting a riot in Toronto. By the time the Illusion tour finished, founding member Izzy Stradlin was gone, his replacement, Gilby Clarke, about to leave, and Slash and Duff McKagan had solo projects in the works. Rose had GNR, and decided to go into seclusion. He didn't do a damn thing for years except tinker in the studio. Within a few years, Slash and Duff had also flown the coup, amid rumors that Rose was heading in a decidedly Nine Inch Nails-influenced direction. Those rumors were confirmed in November 1999 -- a full eight years after the Illusions -- when the sludgy industrial metal "Oh My God" slipped out on the End of Days soundtrack. Fans had been waiting for new Guns N' Roses material for years, but they weren't awaiting any new music -- they wanted another Appetite for Destruction. Aware of this, Rose did two things: he recorded a new version of Appetite with his new band (purportedly for rehearsal purposes, but it may eventually be released), and he assembled the double-disc set Live: Era '87-'93.
Live: Era was designed to satiate the appetites of die-hard fans, longing for some old-school GNR, while also setting the stage for the 2000 comeback with the brand-new studio album Chinese Democracy. In practice, it may have set the stage, but it doesn't deliver the real rock, since it suffers from nearly as much hubris as the Illusions. The first bad sign is that the credits say Live: Era was "recorded across the universe between 1987 and 1993." That's not what GNR fans want -- they want recordings of the band in its late-'80s prime, when it seemed like they could self-destruct at any second. Sure, their performances were scatter-shot, but they were nervy and unpredictable, which results in the best concerts and live albums. In contrast, Live: Era is slick and professional, with each note in place. As a matter of fact, nearly every cut on the album sounds like a composite track, pieced together from various performances given at various venues across the universe. As soon as "Nighttrain" kicks off the album, it sounds as if Axl was in a separate, secluded booth from the rest of the band. Throughout the album, his vocals are not only removed from the band, but amazingly mannered, suggesting that they were redone in the studio. If the rest of the band wasn't around for re-recording, their performances were at least brushed-up, so even if portions of the album were taken from vintage Appetite performances, it's impossible to tell. However, it's likely those tapes were rarely touched -- much of the album was clearly recorded on the Illusions tour, since there are backing vocals, horns and what every GNR fan wants to hear: lots and lots of Dizzy Reed. Thanks to a three-minute introduction to "November Rain," plus several extended solos scattered throughout the album, it seems like there's more Reed than Slash here. And if that isn't indicative of Rose's mind-frame for Live: Era, there is the priceless moment on "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" when he shrieks "Gimme some reggae!" and the band collapses in a sunsplash groove. In short, there's very little of what legions of Gunners fans want: pure, brutal rock & roll. There are a few moments, here and there, but each cut is way too clean and even some of the performances are subpar -- "You're Crazy" is very, very slow, "Rocket Queen" never takes off. In short, there's too much of Axl's pretentions and not enough Slash or Izzy Stradlin -- it comes closer to being vintage GNR than the Illusions did, but the missing ingredients are all too apparent and, in this context, their absence is all the more painful. [Live: Era '87-'93 was also released in a "clean" version, containing no profanities or vulgarities.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine