This concert has been a long time coming. I’ve been a fan of Guns N’ Roses for many years: they were the band that got me into heavy metal when I was a teenager, half my lifetime ago. But for all the countless concerts I’ve been to, I’ve never seen them live. I’ve always regretted the fact I was just a little kid during their heyday, and for one reason or another I never went to see the recent incarnations of the band, even though they gigged quite a lot during the Chinese Democracy years. I’ve always admired Axl’s musical ability and vision, but the acrimonious climate that surrounded the band all these years put me off seeing them.
So, like millions of others around the world, I was delighted last year when legendary guitarist Slash returned to GnR along with original bassist Duff McKagan for the ‘Not in This Lifetime Tour’ (named after a reply given by Axl some years ago when asked when a potential reunion might take place). The tour has been going for almost a year now, and at time of writing has grossed around a quarter of a billion dollars. The massive commercial success of the tour speaks to the enduring enthusiasm for the band’s classic albums, as well as the excitement generated among the band’s loyal fanbase at the prospect of seeing a reunion between Axl and Slash. In an ideal world, it would be nice to see guitarist Izzy Stradlin participating in the tour in some capacity, as well as former drummers Steve Adler and/or Matt Sorum. But the world we live in is so far from ideal that it feels churlish to get hung up about this. Just seeing Axl and Slash playing together is something few thought would ever happen again, and having Duff McKagan involved is the icing on the cake. In a world crying out for happiness and good news, I was determined to grab this with both hands, cynicism be damned. As far as I’m concerned Axl and Slash should be credited for putting their differences to one side for the sake of the fans, a gargantuan payday notwithstanding.
Tickets for the London date seemed to sell out as soon as they were released; but a second date the following day was announced within minutes, so T. and I eagerly snapped up a couple of standing tickets for £100 each. In all honesty, I would probably have paid significantly more if I’d needed to. It helped that the general vibe coming off the early tour shows in the States last year seemed to be overwhelmingly positive. Axl also received generally great reviews when he stood in for AC/DC last year, and the prevailing narrative seems to have changed a bit, with a lot of the engrained critical hostility towards the band, and Axl in particular, dissipating. Without wanting to disparage Chinese Democracy and all the work that went into that – and the work that Axl and other musicians have done to tour for GnR fans over the years – you can’t help but feel this tour was needed to eliminate a lot of the rancour, and restore Axl and the band’s reputation and legacy.
The concerts took place on consecutive days at the London Stadium in Stratford, East London – the only shows they played in the UK. According to the website the venue’s concert capacity is 80,000; the Saturday didn’t look sold out, but the crowd was still very respectable, and had a pretty good split of people from their early 20s to middle age. It also seemed pretty evenly divided between men and women: no surprise as the band has always appealed to both genders. The venue opened at 5pm, with a couple of support bands before GnR were scheduled to take the stage at 7.45pm. The band’s tardiness when hitting the stage back in the day is legendary, but a lot has changed since then, and this is a much more professional, mature, and sober operation. So, I wasn’t surprised when they started on time.
The set opened with a couple of unarguable classics from Appetite, “It’s So Easy” and “Mr Brownstone”. I’d been looking forward to the concert a lot, obviously, but I wasn’t prepared for the rush of euphoria when it actually started. It wasn’t just me either: everyone around me basically went nuts, and I’ve never been at a concert where so many people were singing along to so many of the songs with such gusto. This concert seemed like a cathartic experience for a lot of people. Right from the get-go, the songs sounded just like they should, and that was a feature of the night in general. Axl’s voice is pretty much as good as ever, though I thought he seemed a little gassed at points during “It’s So Easy” – no surprise considering how much running around he was doing on stage. The guitar tone also sounded spot-on, which was particularly important during ballads like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Estranged”. I don’t know whether this can entirely be attributed to Slash’s presence – most guitarists at this level should be able to get the right sound – but it certainly didn’t hurt.
The third song was “Chinese Democracy”, and there was a much more subdued reaction to it than the opening songs. I don’t think this was due to hostility so much as the fact a lot of people didn’t recognize it – I needed T. to tell me what the song was. I was actually a bit surprised to see them play it with Slash and Duff in the band, but I shouldn’t have been. The song actually sounded fine, as did fellow CD song “Better”, which they played after “Double Talkin’ Jive” and… “Welcome to the Jungle”.
“Estranged” is my favourite Guns N’ Roses song and probably my favourite rock song, period. It’s even more special to me because it’s also my fiancee T.’s favourite Guns N’ Roses song. This is even more meaningful to us as it’s one of the band’s less popular ballads. So, we were hoping against hope they would play it, but weren’t sure they would (and had avoided seeing setlists ahead of time for fear of ‘spoilers’). Seeing them play it live in a perfect rendition was a singular experience, and I confess this was the first of several times the concert moved me to tears. It was an enormous emotional release, and I felt then (and still do) overwhelming gratitude to the performers and everyone associated with the concert for making it possible. I’ve been in bands, promoted shows, and attended hundreds of gigs, but live music has never come close to affecting me like that before.
“Estranged” was followed by “Live and Let Die”. The cover is one of the better songs on Use Your Illusion 1, and it was a really enjoyable number and a needed change of pace from the intensity of “Estranged”. It was followed by “Rocket Queen”, another one of my personal favourites off Appetite, and it was fucking awesome. Unfortunately they didn’t have anyone doing the sex sounds during the song, but a lot of people in the crowd tried to supply them anyway. “You Could Be Mine” followed, one of the best songs of UYI 2, rounding off the best hour of live music I’ve ever witnessed.
It has been uplifting to see Axl somewhat liberated over the last couple of years, and as a frontman he now does an extremely professional and engaging job. He didn’t spend too long chatting with the crowd but what he said was simple and sincere (and included an endearing reference to his pet cat). He still has arguably the best voice around, and delivered an engaging and entertaining performance, switching between about ten different outfits over the course of the near 3-hour set. Slash and Duff were on great form, and to do them credit, both of them looked in amazing shape. Slash looked jacked as hell and could have passed for someone 20 years younger, while Duff was something of a revelation, lean and muscular, looking like a heavy metal version of David Bowie. It was good to see him taking over vocals for a couple of covers in the middle of the set. The other band members, mainly holdovers from the Chinese Democracy tours, did a great job, and here’s hoping things hang together like this for a while.
Rose has got a lot of stick over the years, some of it justified, most of it not. For all that he hasn’t necessarily helped his public image much of the time, as an artist he remains misunderstood (sometimes willfully) by much of the musical fraternity. It’s also his misfortune to have been out of sync over the last couple of decades with the dominant smartass hive-mind that overtook a lot of musical culture, something he gives the impression he neither understands nor cares for. He’s continued to do his own thing, to the mixed amusement, bewilderment, and frustration of a lot of observers, but what has never been in doubt is his artistic vision. I’m starting to feel like he has been in the right a lot more than I and many others have given him credit for.
The middle part of the set was a bit more subdued, with some comparative filler in the way of lesser-known covers and songs from UYI like “Civil War” and “Yesterdays”. They played “Coma” – apparently the song is a regular on this tour, the band having not played the song since 1993. It has always been one of my favourite songs off UYI 1, largely because of the intense and emphatic vocals, particularly towards the end. It didn’t quite have the oomph that I would have liked, but that could have been due to the venue’s sound (which wasn’t perfect) or just because it’s a long song that fell during a natural lull in the set. Still, it was nice to hear them play it at all.
“Coma” was followed by a Slash solo, which segued into a cover of the Godfather theme (apparently a staple of shows back in the day). This led into “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, probably the very first GnR song that caught my attention as a teenager. It was a joyful, lungbursting experience, followed by “Out Ta Get Me”. It’s probably one of the weaker songs off Appetite, and the one change I would have made to the setlist would probably have been to swap it for “Think About You”. A cover of “Wish You Were Here” led into “November Rain”, yet another high point in an evening full of them.
The sun had set by this point, which felt somehow appropriate. The mood started to get a bit more reflective, not least as we knew we were pulling towards the end of the marathon set. The band did a cover of the Soungarden song “Black Hole Sun”, a tribute to the late Chris Cornell, and the theme of paying tribute to departed friends and family continued with a heartwarming rendition of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. The cover is not one of my favourite songs off UYI 2, but it shone in the stadium setting with everyone singing along, not least with Axl explicitly connecting it to lost loved ones. The mood then lightened again somewhat with an explosive rendition of “Nightrain”, before moving into the encore.
“Don’t Cry” won a prize for most ironic title of the evening, as by this point a lot of people were really struggling to fight back the tears. The emotional rollercoaster continued with an uproariously upbeat cover of AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie”, which was very well-received indeed. It was an excellent version of the song; the association with AC/DC undoubtedly seems to have helped invigorate Axl. Inevitably, the set finished with “Paradise City”, which was one last opportunity for everyone to sing their hearts out. I’d completely given in to my emotions by this point, trying to make the most of a transcendent and once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Guns N’ Roses have long been one of my favourite bands. They were a gateway band for me – the band that got me into heavy metal – but they’re also much more than that. I discovered debut album Appetite for Destruction around the age of 16, and the energetic, masculine romanticism of the music as well as the lyrical themes themselves helped give me confidence as I entered adulthood. For better or worse, it helped shape the way I approached the world, and my personality. Aside from the great music and hellraising motifs of sex, drinking and drugs, one of the things that always appealed to me about the band was the emotional sincerity, and the surprising penchant for reflection that accompanied the bombast of Use Your Illusion. My disillusionment with GnR over the last decade or more has really hurt, and been like a loss; so this whole experience felt like a massive healing process. Who knows where the band will go from here, but the tour has already shown there’s reason to hope the future has more in store than bitterness and recrimination.
One of the ironies of Not in This Lifetime is that it might actually go a long way towards enhancing the reputation of the Chinese Democracy album. The album attained memetic status before internet memes were even a thing, becoming a byword for excess and self-deception. By the time it was released, an underwhelming reception was almost guaranteed due to the widely entrenched views about the band and Axl’s personality. I confess to having been completely biased and barely listened to it at all, dismissing it out of hand once the critical reviews confirmed my negative expectations. But now, having heard several songs played the other night, I was surprised to find they were actually pretty good. And having listened to the album four or five times since the concert finished, I’m astonished how good it really is. There may not be anything on the album to rival the iconic songs from Appetite or Use Your Illusion, but its an underrated gem with great vocals from Rose (naturally) but also some inspiring composition and guitar work. It definitely seems more consistent than UYI. Hopefully the album will get a bit more of a hearing now. It certainly will in this household.