The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!
Live Era: ’87-’93, Guns ‘N Roses (1999, Geffen Records)
It’s a weird thing to say about a band that was inarguably one of the most ginormous stadium acts of its era, but Guns ‘N Roses really should have had a better career. But here was an epically dysfunctional band; one that reliably counted at least four members struggling with profound substance abuse issues (though not always the same four) and a charismatic lead singer who—in retrospect—seems to have spent the group’s peak struggling with profound mental health issues. I imagine trying to keep GNR moving forward, at any point, was probably like trying to herd Adderall-addicted pythons.
For evidence of GNR’s rollercoaster approach to resume-building, look no further than the Hollywood hellions’ erratic discography: one instant-classic barn-burner debut (Appetite for Destruction), followed by an odds-and-sods collection of acoustic tracks and demos plastered over with fake crowd noise as if to appear “live” (GNR Lies), followed by three long years of rootless inaction, followed by two individual double albums released on the same day (Use Your Illusion), followed by three years of grueling touring, and then… two decades of nothing.
So it makes perfect sense, in a way, that despite playing so many goddamn shows over the course of their run, GNR’s only official live album appeared, without fanfare, the very Guns-unfriendly music year of 1999—well past the band’s heyday and way too far in advance of the group’s ultimate reunion and revival.
As its title would suggest, Live Era ’87-’93 compiles spanning pretty much GNR’s entire first phase of existence. Now, the dates and locations where the individual tracks were recorded are readily available on Wikipedia. But when I bought this double-CD set back in 1999, there was literally zero info in the liner notes as to when, were, or with what lineup of the band any these songs were derived.
And since GNR’s two big album eras—Appetite and Illusion—represented such entirely different versions of the group (both stylistically and in terms of personnel) trying, at the time, to guess whether the songs were being played by “Appetite” Guns or “Illusion” Guns was both a fun guessing game as well as incredibly frustrating. Now, thanks to the internet, we know that the majority of tracks on Live Era were captured during the endless Use Your Illusion touring jags of 1991-93. But even that’s a pretty broad and non-specific amount of time.
Live Era don’t waste any time grabbing the audience’s attention, blasting out of the gates with a four-song run of top-tier Appetite material: cheap booze ode “Night Train,” personifying heroin love letter/lament “Mr. Brownstone,” badass “It’s So Easy,” and the ear-splitting air-raid standard “Welcome to the Jungle.”
Whoever sequenced this album (some combination of Slash and infamous Guns ‘N Roses hanger-on/weirdo biker dude/occasional Axl co-writer Del James) is wise to slow things down after this assault, with the Izzy Stradlin original “Dust ‘N Bones”—no one’s favorite GNR song, but an underrated Illusion-era deep cut that expertly showcases the band at its moodiest, blues-iest extreme.
Divided into two full CDs, the remainder of Disc One features yet more Appetite Guns ‘N Bangers alongside Lies highlights “Used to Love Her” and the MTV power ballad hit “Patience,” finally culminating in an extended Axl Rose piano tease prefacing the epic “November Rain”—which the band pulls off with such calculated road-dog precision, it’ll take every ounce of willpower to keep yourself from swan-diving through a the nearest available wedding cake.
During these lengthy Illusions tours, GNR were infamously unprofessional when it came to actually taking the stage on time and would often abruptly cut their shows short based on the whims of their mercurial lead singer, more than once leading to open rioting in the streets. But at within the context of the songs—or at least these versions of the songs—GNR is all business; a fully functional musical unit whose playing is tighter than one of Matt Sorum’s booming kick drums.
Disc Two of Live Era opens with another Appetite track, “Out Ta Get Me”—this one actually recorded in 1988 with the canonical Appetite lineup of Axl, Slash, Izzy, Duff McKagen and original drummer Steven Adler. All in all, fully 10 of Appetite’s 12 tracks end up represented here, indicating once again just how long of a shadow that album continues to cast over Guns’ entire career. But that’s not to say I don’t have a soft spot for Rose’s histrionic piano epics of latter-day GNR, and particlarly Slash’s melodic guitar playing on them, so smooth and velvety they seem almost made out of the same stuff as the guitarist’s signature top hat.
Live Era ’87-’93 is an imperfect document of an imperfect musical outfit. Would a single-CD, single-night document of the band at its peak have made for a better album? Probably. But with GNR, more was always(always, always) more.
-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)