It was Babs vs. Axl this weekend, and the distinction between the two is quite clear.
One is a highly popular singer with a readily recognizable voice, an artist who is an establish diva with a famously devoted following, and whose live performances over the years have been unpredictable and maddeningly infrequent.
The other is Barbra Streisand.
Friday was the night Guns N’ Roses at the Joint ran up against Streisand at MGM Grand Garden Arena. It seemed an either-or proposition, as both shows would invariably overlap. In terms of timing, I mean. Not in terms of genre or audience demographic or decibel level or logo design or any other metric.
But there was a way to do both, thanks to the punctuality of one artist (Streisand) and the chronically late-arriving habits of another (Axl). Streisand’s “Back to Brooklyn Tour” show would go off at 8 p.m., or very close to it. Guns N’ Roses would clamber onstage around 11:15 p.m., or later, for its “Appetite for Democracy Tour” performance. The doors were to open at 9 p.m., and the opener was to be Las Vegas metal band 333.
Consequently, the uncommon doubleheader -- and this is where you say, “Only in Vegas” -- was achievable. But only with some deft clock management, physical gymnastics and questionable driving tactics.
The arrival at MGM Grand was about 7 p.m., and I was immediately struck by legions of Streisand fans. I mean, struck by the appearance of legions of Streisand fans who actually resemble Barbra Streisand. I am not sure if this was uniformly intended, same as Beatles fans wore their hair in the same style of the band, or if it was some sort of subconscious coincidence. But dozens of Streisand fans, I expect most of them to be women, looked a lot like Babs.
Unusual, too, was the long line of ticket-holders snaking along the Grand Garden Arena concourse. One barked into a cell phone, “They are telling us they are moving our seats! We’re getting different seats! Oh, I mean, we are getting better seats!” True. Those in the back of MGM Grand in sections 201, 203 and 205 were upgraded to lower sections, and those sections were draped off.
Whether the resetting of the house caused the show to go off 15 minutes late, can’t say. But as “Coffee Talk” host Linda Richman once said, “No big whoop.”
Having owned no Streisand music aside from the album “Wet” back in the last gasps of the disco era, I wasn’t sure how this show would play out. Old photos of the instantly recognizable star beamed from the arena’s video panels. Streisand strode out, supremely confident, wearing a dignified and slightly risqué silver-sequined black gown showing a fair bit of leg. The 100-piece orchestra was dropped just beneath a stage decorated with golden railings, and a stairway led from the middle of the musicians to the front of the stage.
The question with these generation-spanning artists is about quality. Streisand looked great, but how’d she sound? Amazing. Seriously, at age 70, Streisand’s voice is still at or near the equal of any vocalist in their prime today. Pick anyone, including those performing on the Strip or about to. Streisand sings a bit lower than, say, 40 years ago. But she delivers songs with a warmth you can’t teach. Even her pauses are stirring.
It helps that every song Streisand sings is familiar. She started with “Easy Does It.” The word “jaunty” is not used nearly enough, but this song was distinctively jaunty. “People” and “The Way We Were” reduced some fans sitting nearby to sniffles. She faced a giant teleprompter that rolled with lyrics and even midsong asides but was not beholden to the script.
During a Q+A segment, she read from an index card: “Do I watch reality TV? I prefer fantasy to reality, like Fox News.” A cheer went up, followed by a less-robust round of boos. Streisand joked that those who were booing were Republicans, and thus wealthy, and thus should have had better seats.
Maybe they were relocated before the show.
Streisand paid tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch with a medley of “What I Did For Love, “The Way We Were” and “Through the Eyes of Love,” accompanied by old photos of the two. After an intermission, trumpet great Chris Botti was summoned to the stage (from a distance, Botti looks a bit like Zowie Bowie’s Chris Phillips), and 10:30 p.m. was about upon us.
The walk-drive-park-walk time from MGM Grand Garden Arena to the Joint might be 30 minutes, depending on traffic. So I hustled to the Joint in time to catch the sendoff of 333. Then it was a wait, of 45 minutes, for Guns N’ Roses to turn up. They made it onstage just after 11:40 p.m. -- this is the start time for a GNR performance during its residency at the Hard Rock Hotel.
This was roughly the same show, or at least the same tenor of show, the band performed on New Year’s Eve. They opened with a personal favorite, and even impersonal favorite, the addiction-tinged “Mr. Brownstone” and careened through “Live and Let Die,” “It’s So Easy,” “Rocket Queen,” Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Civil War” and “Welcome to the Jungle.” Every song for which the band is famous was blasted as Rose and guitarists Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, Richard Fortus and DJ Ashba sprinted across the stage and along ramps leading to auxiliary platforms hanging over the audience.
The video screens showed a carnival of animation and live footage, and smoke spewed across the stage to such a point that Rose complained (jokingly, it seemed) that the residue onstage was leading to uncertain footing. “Fortunately, I wore rubber-bottomed shoes,” he said. “I came prepared.” When a stagehand hustled across the stage while pushing a broom, Rose called out, “I used to do that.”
The show lasted 3 hours and change. By the time the band finished with “Paradise City,” it seemed possible the band could have been inspired by its own music played early in the show.
For a band that has one classic album (“Appetite for Destruction”) and one quasi-classic double album (“Use Your Illusion I” and “Use Your Illusion II”), 3 hours is a lot of territory to traverse. How to fill? With solos! GNR is musically muscular, and everyone performed lengthy solos to bolster the band’s recognizable catalog. Thal and bassist Tommy Stinson, late of the Replacements, even sang while Rose took a breather.
The inarguable musical credibility of the new Guns N’ Roses lineup does not override the power of Rose as a frontman. He is not the same vocalist he was in the late 1980s, of course, sometimes forcing notes rather than singing them. But he still holds the audience with his serpentine moves and the headband-and-sunglasses ensemble and seemed energetic enough to perform well past 3 a.m., when the house lights finally came up.
Was he worth the wait? Sure. Could the show have been trimmed by, say, an hour? Likely. But in these instances, to maximize the experience, you must plan accordingly. Peripheral needs, such as sleep, are to be dealt with later.