Well, well, well. In London for the first time since the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 is the classic line-up of the most dangerous band in the world, 26 years, one burst pancreas and several acrimonious spitting contests later.
Some backstory: by 1996, the punch and spit of 1987’s genre-defining instaclassic Appetite For Destruction has segued into the bitter aftermath of the two year plus tour for the bloated Use Your Illusion duo. A strung out Slash leaves G’n’R after finding out his lead parts on a cover of Sympathy For The Devil have been remixed with those of another guitarist. Soon after, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum leave, meaning Guns are now shy five members (including original drummer Steven Adler and co-founder Izzy Stradlin) and, not incidentally, an entire band. Frontman Axl Rose retreats to the studio, and emerges with the last great rock album of the 90s in the shape of Chinese Democracy – the only problem being it came out in 2008, took fifteen years, a revolving door of at least round thirteen different personnel (Brian May contributed a guitar part that was discarded – then re-recorded in his style by someone else) and around $14 million in studio bills for the album to appear above ground. With the band heading towards the scrapheap of rock history, Axl stubbornly refuses to pick up the phone when the fans called for a reunion, proclaiming in 2015: “Not in this lifetime”.
And here we are, at the Not In This Lifetime tour, 2017.
Let’s get this straight right off the bat: this wasn’t just a great show. This was near-biblical in terms of the ferociousness of some of the playing, the expert musicianship on display and the mastery of stagecraft. They played the classics. They played cuts from Chinese Democracy and made them sound classic. They had 80,000 people sing Happy Birthday to the queen of England. They even arrived on time. Some odd speaker issues in parts of the stadium and drummer Frank Ferrer and Axl having some minor timing problems on Estranged aside, this show was damn near perfect.
Bar new keyboard player Melissa Reeves, the band are are all in their fifties, so it’s natural that time has slowed down the most obvious things like their ability to careen around a stage (Axl’s snakehips used to grind the air like they were controlling a man drunk on sex; now it just seems like he’s drunk), but holy s**t can they still bring the noise. Having an outright monolithic set list containing some of hard rock’s greatest hits obviously helps.
With the opening salvo of It’s So Easy and Mr. Brownstone, Axl’s voice dominates the lower registers and his feints towards falsetto are expertly utilised. His recent tenure as AC/DC’s frontman has obviously helped him find the vocal range that bombed through Appetite and Use Your Illusions like a prime-era Robert Plant chewing sandpaper. With Duff anchoring the rhythm and Slash burning through notes like a gasoline fire hitting a paper factory, this felt less like a financially-driven resurrection and more like a masterclass in raw rock n’ roll, powered by a formidable cocktail of pure adrenaline and sheer class .
There always was a musical focus to this group that belied their dismissal as riffmonkey cockrockers, not to mention a cognitive dissonance between their sincerity and hostile ambivalence to the outside world. Is November Rain a multi-part, beautiful ode to a doomed relationship, or a slab of camp with a fitting reputation as the ultimate in 90s excess? Is Axl Rose rock’s most divisive figure, capable of writing something as sincere as Sweet Child O’ Mine, as hopeful as Yesterdays, but also as narcissistic as Estranged and as hateful as One In A Million? It’s all of the above, but when you’re watching the greatest frontman and the best lead guitarist of the last thirty years ghosting their prime, you don’t care for anything but the sheer thrill of the moment and the benchmark it’s creating for every other live act you’ll see afterwards.
The relentless stomp of Chinese Democracy got a no-frills Duff n’ Slash treatment you never knew you wanted to hear (its parent album had some moments: the generic yet lovely This I Love and the slippery, careening Better also got the classic line-up overhaul, the latter complemented by second guitarist Richard Fortus’ snaking solo runs). Then Welcome To The Jungle really got the crowd going, Axl’s feral yowl bursting through to remind you just why this band mattered, and still could. The whole first hour was an ode to the near-visceral power they had in their prime, with the way the two movements of Rocket Queen ascend from sleaze into pleading a reminder that this group of guys don’t merely play their instruments, they deploy them. You Could Be Mine was restored to its pseudo-punk roots, and Civil War – perhaps fittingly, given the climate in London these last few days – threw off the shackles of pretension to become a manifesto. The biggest surprise was the long-mothballed Coma, the discerning G’n’R fan’s deep cut of choice, which started as quietly manic and ended as thrillingly cathartic as the 1991 studio version would make you expect.
There is true emotion here as well. G’n’R, back in the day, were huge cheerleaders of the grunge scene – Kurt Cobain’s personal animosity to Rose not withstanding – and toured with Soundgarden, plus Seattle-born McKagan has been open about the moments when his attempts to go sober diverged with similar efforts by grunge’s finest. This makes their performance of Black Hole Sun, dedicated of course to Chris Cornell, all the more affecting, and even their usually overblown Knockin On Heaven’s Door (Axl nodding to the Grenfell tragedy in his pre-amble) is given a slower pace. Both show off the unashamed heart that has always been proudly glued to the sleeve of this most earnest of hard rock bands.
By the two hour mark of the three hour set, you got the feeling you are watching a benchmark rock performance, one that obliterates and renders irrelevant the rock “aspirations” of the feeble new breed like Royal Blood, but also dethrones the established live music royalty as it stands in 2017. Even heavy hitters like U2, The Foo Fighters and Queens Of the Stone Age are now but mere pretenders, and none of the above can pull out something as joyous as the stadium-shaking Sweet Child O’ Mine or the ever-melodramatic but near-heavenly November Rain in the last third of their set. Paradise City is the final song of the night, and as the whistles, cannons and fireworks go off all over the stage, as confetti rains down during that most joyous of choruses, you know you’ve been to something special.
For more on Guns ‘N Roses and their tour click here.