This can be a touchy subject, so let's get it out of the way: Cover bands play songs made famous by other bands. Tribute bands are Method actors—they "become" another band. Last week, Portland saw performances by both a Guns N' Roses cover band and a local GNR tribute.
One of them was fronted by Axl Rose.
Though I had been thinking it, Michael "Izzbo" Killian of local GNR tribute Appetite for Deception (who I met at the Rose Garden last Monday for our first GNR show) was the first to say it: "I don't mean they're a cover band in a disrespectful way, like most people do," explained the rhythm guitarist. "They're really, really talented." And they were—five-minute solos from each of the group's three guitarists wowed me (though they helped to drain the already two-thirds-empty arena). The band played most of the songs I wanted to hear, but those tunes weren't represented in their Sunset Strip, Dionysian glory by a now-cornrowed frontman Axl Rose and dreadlocked keyboardist Dizzy Reed—the only remaining members from the early-'90s heyday of the group. A video montage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus concluded the encore, much to my nausea.
Three days later, I saw a much closer approximation to that sweet child of the 1980s when I watched Appetite for Deception play to the drunkest crowd I have ever witnessed before 10 pm, and one very excited to be singing along to "My Michelle" while high-fiving a sleeveless, red bandanna-ed "Axl." Onstage at East Burnside's Outlaws Bar & Grill, Killian lit a cigarette just before "It's So Easy," one of the songs in which he sings the most. It was contrived, but it was also badass and, in parody, unpretentious.
And Killian, a gunsmith by day, says that if all the members of Appetite were in a position to tour full time, they could easily make a living off the band (something a lot of original bands can't say). Last summer they played a four-hour headlining set in South Dakota at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, on a stage just as big as the Rose Garden's, to a crowd of thousands—comparable to the number of those who paid $40 to $75 to see the real GNR last Monday.
While Killian had complained at that show of only a "teensy, half-second taste of the snake dance," Appetite frontman Mark "Axl M." Thomas not only wore a thick snakeskin belt, but shimmied all over Outlaws' small (compared with an arena) stage. He looked as convincing as Rose had for that brief moment three nights prior, but neither was as fluid as that third Axl, the one burned into our cultural memory from '87's "Welcome to the Jungle" video.
While Thomas—whose voice was just about perfect on the high notes and only slightly less gruff and raw than Rose's on lower moments like the verses to "Mr. Brownstone"—is attempting to get closer and closer to the Axl of 1990, Rose himself is just trying to be the Axl of 2006: "He has to grow as an artist," Thomas told me after his set at Outlaws. Fair enough. But, although the opening riff to "Jungle" echoing through that dark arena was more epic than expected, I actually had more fun in the throes of Deception. In the world of impersonators, Portland's GNR tribute is an illusion you can actually use.