Guns N’ Roses, ZZ Top, Rose Tattoo @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (17/3/2013)

It may be the Axl show, but the Guns N’ Roses frontman caterwauls, yelps, shimmies and sashays his way into Melbourne’s heart writes BEN CONNOLLEY.

There’s a moment about five songs into Guns N Roses ’ second sold out show at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl where Axl bemoans that he is, “Old at heart, but I’m only 28/and I’m much too young to let love break my heart.” Almost instantaneously it’s impossible to suspend your disbelief. The lyric, from Use Your Illusion II ’s ‘Estranged’, speaks of a young and naïve love-sick fool watching everything fall apart, and it flies in the face of Rose’s present day reality.

No longer just old at heart, the rocker looks every inch his 51 years: bloated, wrinkled and often short of breath. Few concessions are made for his age, save for frequent mid-song retreats to a side-stage dressing room; and the result feels a little like a bad pastiche. Still, what does it matter? Gunners were always selling a flashy veneer – one where black leather chaps, sunglasses at night, neck tattoos and chunky silver skull jewellery were the norm.

Earlier in the day, Australia’s own purveyors of the hard-livin’ lifestyle Rose Tattoo went some way to proving that no, it didn’t matter. If you could ignore the fact their inked-up frontman was the likable host of a few charity television shows and a vocal (and conservative) political candidate, the band’s beefy renditions of past glories are raucous and fun. A quintessentially Australian sound, the foot-to-the-floor bottom end and crunchy guitars almost drip with pub sweat. From the top of the hill, the mix is often drowned out by the high-pitch drone of nearby Formula One cars, adding to the heady masculinity of it all.

Flipping the coin completely there was no suspension of disbelief required at all for ZZ Top ’s Route 66 brand of sexualized blues-rock. Looking resplendent in embroidered suede purple suits with their trademark white beads swinging to-and-fro, there is no doubt that in their fifth decade together, the trio’s tongues are still firmly in cheek. They kick off with the dripping, drawling southern rock of ‘I Thank You’ and ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’, backed by strange ‘90s-era MTV video screen loops, which alternate between desolate “road-scapes” and writhing girls. The motifs explode into overdrive as the trio hit their stride with big hits ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ and ‘Legs’, which hit the mark for most in attendance.

The “Appetite for Democracy” tour, as this run of shows has been affectionately dubbed, seemed the perfect chance for a band to reflect back on an album, now a quarter of a century old. However, the Gunners are no ordinary band. A lot of water has gone under the bridge in 25 years – breakups, reunions, Chinese Democracies – so it is with equal parts excitement and trepidation that life-long Gunners fans await the arrival of the main event.

It eventually blasts off with a pyro-injected rendition of the title track Chinese Democracy. A slight misfire that is rectified immediately by the familiar opening riff of ‘Welcome To The Jungle’. This blows any stray cobwebs off Axl Rose, whose squeal comes somewhere from deep in his guts. In many ways there is little difference between the Axl of old and the Axl of new: he caterwauls and yelps in all the right places, he shimmies and sashays as if he is still taking beer bottles to the head at the Roxy, and he piss bolts to stand-still like he still racing up the ego-ramps of the Use Your Illusion era stages. It’s immediately captivating.

Appetite gets a couple more airings early on, showing off the prowess of the current Gunners outfit, which comprises a trio of guitars, bass, drums and two keyboards (one manned by the original “ring-in” Dizzy Reed). The guitarists are undoubtedly the focus of the show, playing solo-bingo in order to crank out the riffs. Self-imposed ringleader DJ Ashba apes around from every vantage point to rally the crowd, his baby-faced charisma coupled with an impressive array of fashion accouterments belying his age.

Fellow guitarists Richard Fortus and someone called Bumblefoot both fit like gloves and deliver absolutely flawless riffs without batting an eyelid. Bassist Tommy Stinson, formerly of The Replacements, is a dead ringer for Sid Vicious (even down to his loping gait and frizzled hair) and content to take a back seat, sauntering around the side of the impossibly high drum riser.

Five songs in Bumblefoot positions his guitar skywards, leans back on his haunches and sets his face to melt-mode, Axl sidles up beside him and croons that line from ‘Estranged’ and just like that the whole façade comes crashing down. From this point in the night the audience has two choices, sneer at what Gunners have become or embrace what the band’s songs always were: pure escapism backed by some shit-hot guitar work, a solid bottom end and lead by an eccentric, wailing madman.

By the end of ‘Estranged’ my sneer transforms to a smile, and rather than think about what once was, for the following hour-and-a-half I embrace a cavalcade of overblown, bloated and downright clichéd rawk. And the great majority of those in attendance choose the same path. Appetite numbers all get a boisterous return from the crowd.

The encore is lead by ‘Patience’, before an orgy of off-kilter kick opens up into quintessential gig closer ‘Paradise City’ which is accompanied by an absurd hurricane of red and gold confetti. It may be naff and a just a little bit overblown, but hey it’s Guns N’ Roses.