14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
welcome to the bungle...
, November 11, 2008
This review is from: Live Era '87-'93 (Audio CD)
Back in '91, I was THE biggest GN'R fan on the face of the earth: I knew all of their lyrics word by word (even though I didn't understand 'em all, they played a huge part in my future mastery of the language), knew every single cymbal crash from their drums, I could sing every single note of their guitar solos. But then, as the original lineup of the band started to slowly but surely erode, so did their impact on me and I started to get interested in other artists by default. Why do I bring this up? 'Cause I think that you should know where I come from and where my head's at now in order to get the full picture of this review.
GN'R started as a glamed out, punked up hard rock band from L.A in the mid 80's. But unlike some of the earlier Californian rock bands such as Van Halen, Ratt, Motley Crue and countless others, there was something inherently different to this bunch of slackers: they were a mean, angry, borderline violent group that meant EVERY SINGLE word they said, be it their paranoid delusions ("Out ta get me"), their macho posturing ("It's so Easy"), their struggle with addiction ("Mr Brownstone") or...their fragility ("Sweet Child o' Mine).
They just presented themselves as they were, and because of that, they came across as genuine. Musically though, they were pretty raw: singer W. Axl Rose was an energetic and effective frontman, but he could also be pretty rough around the edges; drummer Steven Adler was far from being a virtuoso, but made up for that with energy to spare; rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin was a great songwriter but a somewhat limited player (by his own admission), bassist Duff McKagan was adequate but not stellar, and riffmeister Slash was a diamond in the rough, alternatively mind blowing and lackluster depending of his inebriated state. And yet for all their original shortcomings, one had only to witness a live performance by the band to be sold, such was the overwhelming RN'R vibration that they were able to generate.
But then, something happened: they grew up; they evolved. By the time they cut their mammoth "Use Your Illusion" project, they had sacked Adler (a casualty of his overindulgence) in favor of session player Matt Sorum, added keyboards courtesy of one Dizzy Reed and started writing grandiose, sprawling, 9 minute epics. This transition meant that the band, in order to fulfill their higher musical aspirations, had to grow as people and as musicians, push themselves to the limit and shed some of their earlier spontaneity (along with most of their chemical dependencies) in favor of a more calculated, cerebral, musical approach. And to top it all, just 2 months after the release of the "Illusion" records and barely 3 weeks prior to the beginning of the next leg of their tour, Izzy jumps ship and he is quickly replaced by LA bar circuit veteran Gilby Clarke (actually, an old friend of Izzy's from before the time there even was a GN'R...now how's that for irony and/or fate?), whose tangible contribution to the band was very limited, for one reason or another (I don't intend to enter a debate about his musical merits and/or the band's internal politics and workings here).
Both of these tangents are captured in after-the-fact release from 1999 "Live Era 87-93" (released 6 years after the last live performance by the band), but unfortunately, the results are less than stellar: indeed, the "before" and "after" sonic pictures herein don't mesh all that well together, as the difference between the two is pretty brutal and can leave the uninitiated quite confused. The record includes no further information as to the sources of these performances other than the purposely vague "recorded across the universe" tag. Many people (critics and fans alike) complain about this issue, arguing that because of this omission, it is "impossible" to know which tracks feature the original five some and which the "Illusion" band.
However, those of you with enough interest and a keen ear will find no problem whatsoever: like I said, the difference is brutal! The vast majority of the tracks come from the 2 year-plus "Use your Illusion World Tour", which is hardly surprising considering that most of these tracks had never been played live before that tour went underway, and the presence of keyboards, horns, synthesizers and backup singers are the easy giveaway (Move to the City, Patience, Don't Cry, November Rain, etc). And then you have a handful of tracks recorded by the original band (My Michelle, Used to Love Her, You're Crazy, Out ta Get me). Granted, there are a couple of tracks that lie in a somewhat "gray area" if you will (It's so Easy, Mr Brownstone), but once again, if you listen closely, you will hear the difference. Let me give you a clue: listen closely to the drums. Listen to the drums on "Estranged", and then listen to the drums on "My Michelle", and then listen to the drums on "Nightrain". You WILL hear the difference, I promise.
The song selection is adequate but not great, essentially representing their "Illusion" tour setlist. There are, however, a few suspicious omissions: "Live & Let Die", "Bad Obsession", "So Fine", "Civil War", "Double Talking Jive" (to name but a few) all got the big thumbs down in favor of extended versions of "November Rain", "Estranged" and Axl's spotlight number "It's Alright" (notice a trend, here?)
Another criticism leveled towards this release is in regards of its sound quality: many argue that the performances have been greatly manipulated and fixed in the studio. Having listened to several bootlegs from the "Use Your Illusion" tour (Paris, Mexico, etc), I have to say that I don't fully agree with this observation: for the most part, the sound of this CD is fairly consistent with what I've heard over the years; there is, however, one aspect of the performances that might have been doctored: the vocals. Indeed, after repeated listening, some of the songs (Nightrain, for instance) sound as if the vocals had been chopped up and spliced together from several different takes, not necessarily studio takes, but several different live takes. And I find it more than a little suspicious that the list of people involved with the production of the album includes so many engineers/sound programmers, including future A Perfect Circle mastermind Billy Howerdel.
Many fans feel that they have been shortchanged with the release of a subpar product, and they argue that a release from a single, full show from their bar days would have been the superior choice. I partially agree: see, most people think that "Live Era" is a flawed representation of a great band, while I on the other hand believe that it is a great representation of a flawed band. You can't really argue with the sound quality here, as it is crystal clear, above and beyond any of the bootlegs I've heard. But the problem is not the sound, but rather the performances: the bloated, overindulgent, pretentious performances chockfull of superfluous elements. Don't get me wrong, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with horn sections, backup singers and/or synths in RN'R, but one thing is the studio environment and a whole different one is the live setting. Take Aerosmith for example: they have used strings and horns from day one on their recordings, but that doesn't mean that when they hit the road they take a big band ensemble with them. They understand the difference between the two environments, but sadly, the guys in GN'R didn't.
Personally, I believe that GN'R reached their absolute musical peak during their "Get in the Ring Motherf#cker Tour", which took place right before the release of the "Illusion" package (don't take my word for it, just go to youtube and see it and HEAR it for yourself), simply because the band reached a new level of musicianship while still retaining a fair amount of reckless rage (granted, most of it was due to intra-band warfare, but still...). Therefore, I think that the selections included in "Live Era" should have been limited to include NOTHING beyond that point. I mean, some of the songs don't even seem to have rhythm guitar at all (Don't Cry, Sweet Child o' Mine, Rocket Queen) with Slash's omnipresent guitar conducting the proceedings, while others (Patience) sound just plain wrong. I personally am a big fan of live albums, but I don't necessarily believe that a great live album HAS to be culled from a single performance. So I think that a much more balanced CD could have been made by a) using as many performances from the original band as possible b) bypassing their horns n' babes phase wholly c) making different song selection. I mean, ALL the songs from Appetite for Destruction should come from shows of that era, wouldn't you agree?
Finally, while I do agree that releasing a full, early show from their bar days (such as their shows at the Marquee in London, which were recorded for use as b-sides of their European singles and produced such mythical tracks as their version of AC/DC's "Whole Lotta Rosie") would undoubtedly blow "Live Era" right off the water, there is the teeny, tiny problem of those shows being relatively short (an hour and 20 minutes or so) in comparison. Rock in Rio '91 comes to mind as well, but they had sound problems and some even say lack of rehearsal time. Oh well...
With five stars for sound quality and one star for its musical offering, "Live Era" earns 3 stars for its overall execution. If you're a diehard GN'R fan, you'll probably want to have this while holding your breath waiting for a DEFINITIVE live release from the band. If you're a newcomer, chances are you're going to end up disappointed. At its best, "Live Era" is barely an adequate snapshot of one of the greatest Rn'r of the last 20 years, and at its worst, a sad testament to the powers of a once great band on a downward spiral. The choice is yours...
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