Hours before Axl Rose, Slash, Duff McKagan and the rest of what’s being billed as the reunion of the classic Guns N’ Roses lineup hit the T-Mobile Arena stage last weekend, fans flooded the rainy Las Vegas Strip. Sporting GNR T-shirts from every era and many leather-clad, all of them had GNR stories and reasons for traveling from countries like Canada, Sweden, Japan and Argentina to see a show that was inconceivable as recently as a year ago.
When asked to comment on why they decided to travel to see a band with such an unreliable reputation, the consensus was the same: “Who knows if it will last” or “I want to see it because it could fall apart” were the main responses. A mother-daughter pair from Bloomington, IL, summed up the feeling of the cautiously optimistic crowd: “I just hope they show up tonight.” Another quipped, “I don’t think it’s going to last till Indio.”
Axl’s cheeky name for the “Not in Our Lifetime” tour had a measure of self-deprecation that the singer has never been publicly known for. Rose used that phrase ahead of the band’s 2012 Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame induction, claiming in a rambling statement that he’d never reunite the classic GNR lineup and definitely wouldn’t attend the ceremony. Fortunately for longtime fans, only one of those things was proved to be true.
Fans weren’t sure what to expect, which is why they plunked down nearly four figures to see what happens before it possibly blows up. Rose’s broken foot from last week’s Troubadour set soured many people’s feelings. Would he show up? Would he move around? These fears were quelled and aggravated, respectively, as a throne was rolled out. Dave Grohl had lent Axl (who now bears a strong resemblance to Rowdy Roddy Piper) his throne from a recent Foo Fighters tour.
As Friday turned into Saturday, Duff’s first notes rang out for set opener “It’s So Easy” and fans exploded when Slash emerged from the shadows stage left reclaim his role as the GNR’s main axe man. The Spinal Tap-esque revolving-door guitar players that have attempted to fill his role over the past 19 years has bordered on comical and sad: It takes up to four guitarists to replicate Slash’s trademark thrashing blues-infused metal sound.
Nerves and excitement were rampant for the first quarter of the two-and-a-half hour set. It took the band six songs to find a rhythm, which suddenly clicked during their nine-minute opus “Estranged.” Slash’s soaring solo was the first time “Holy shit they’re together!” morphed into “This might actually be great,” especially on the soaring solos of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “November Rain.” That’s not to say weren’t a few flubs—most notably a sloppy version of “You Could Be Mine”—but once things came together sonically, the novelty of seeing Axl and Slash share a stage for the first time since July 17, 1993 surpassed expectations.
Yes, some griped about Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler’s absence. While Izzy remains a fan favorite, his notorious unreliability would have hampered the chemistry of the live show; he seems more comfortable as a session guy.
Duff has always been an integral part of the band’s sound. His most important contribution was adding his vocals, which balanced and filled out many of the GNR classics without Axl having to strain too much.
One of the great curiosities heading into the show was the role the Chinese Democracy-era tracks would play. That was answered early on with Slash’s bone crunching riffs powering through the title track and “Better.” You couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if Slash, Duff and company played on Chinese Democracy.
Some were dismissive of the roles non-classic Gunners rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus and drummer Frank Ferrer, but the duo held their own, particularly the drummer. Ferrer doesn’t boast the bombastic style of Matt Sorum nor the grit of Adler, but his blending of both styles was an underrated highlight as he kept the machine moving. The same goes for longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed and new addition Melissa Reese, whose roles were to fill out the sound and keep the thing moving.
The stadium-ready show featured the same extravagance of the pre-1993 era GNR. Featuring a gigantic backdrop, constant pyro (guys, didn’t you learn your lesson the Metallica tour in 1992?) and scantily clad background dancers, the setup was extremely polished at this early juncture. Yet something was amiss. With Rose unable to roam around due to his injury, it was nearly impossible to tell with the naked eye if he and Slash genuinely were excited about playing together. The same goes for goes Rose’s trademark manic energy that defined GNR shows of the past. Being subdued somehow worked: with Rose focusing on hitting the tough notes (he mostly did), his old and new bandmates were free to build chemistry over the course of the night.
There were subtle moments throughout that showed a burgeoning trust between Axl and his old/new bandmates. During solos, Axl would look down from his throne with a visible sense of relief—something that certainly wasn’t there during the ’09-14 years—that he could rely on Slash and Duff to play their parts the way they were meant to be played rather than relying on a pack of mercenaries. The dynamic was way tighter considering this was the lineup’s first proper show, even if Duff has played with the new GNR on occasion. In fact, unlike the previous incarnations, this lineup had the grit and soul that had been severely lacking in the recent past.
Bigger questions remain. It was tough to gauge whether or not Axl and Slash actually enjoyed being around each other, though a tiny hint came as Rose hobbled offstage before the encore next to Slash and they appeared to speaking, but the two hardly acknowledged each another during the set. Following this initial run through Coachella and Mexico City, those questions will be more urgent as the band hits stadiums across the U.S. and likely Europe.
Closing with “Patience” and “Paradise City,” the notoriously temperamental Rose couldn’t help but grin at his bandmates. As confetti rained on the crowd at the end of “Paradise Ctiy,” it signaled that the first hurdle was cleared, and with only a few empty seats, it confirmed that Guns N’ Roses could be the force they once were instead of the joke they became. What’s going to make this lineup work—as opposed to the hollow new Van Halen, with David Lee Roth and without Michael Anthony—will be if they continue to grow.
The out-of-control Guns N’ Roses of 20 years ago appears to be gone. There’s nothing wrong with embracing nostalgia as everyone onstage seemed to appreciate the moment. Questions remain of whether or not this is just a cash grab remain, and the true test will be whether or not the rumors of new, good music will emerge from a band that lost its prime to bitterness and power-lust.
Leaving the arena, an Australian man who had flown to Las Vegas for the weekend was crying.
“I just can’t believe this fucking happened,” he said wiping away the tears, either from joy or exhaustion. “I just hope this continues.”