By Clay Marshall
What a difference a quarter-century makes. After one of the most peculiar launches imaginable — one that, following a press release which raised more questions than answers, saw a high-profile late-night television appearance scrapped at the last minute, a curious concert cancellation by the group's original drummer, a shocking flirtation with AC/DC that threatened to control the narrative, a flurry of activity (including a "secret" show) on April 1 that some originally believed to be an elaborate April Fool's prank and, last but not least, a broken foot — GUNS N' ROSES formally returned to the stage at Las Vegas' new T-Mobile Arena last night for the first of two sold-out shows.
Interestingly, the arena is located less than two miles away from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, where just 22 months ago GN'R played its last official concerts with the impressive eight-piece, three-guitar lineup that toured the world together for five years in support of the infamous "Chinese Democracy". Last week, after months of speculation, it finally became clear that half of that lineup — drummer Frank Ferrer, guitarist Richard Fortus, longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed and, of course, Axl Rose — would participate in the band's 2016 "reunion." That's a misleading word, though, as until April 1, this particular incarnation of GN'R — which features a returning Slash and Duff McKagan, as well as second keyboardist Melissa Reese — had never performed together. (Cue the great line from "Airheads": "There's three of you — you're not exactly 'Lone.'")
Semantics aside, it's easy to be cynical about reunion tours, especially when bands can't bury the necessary hatchets to showcase lineups that people truly want to see. After all, was anyone genuinely excited to see David Lee Roth return to a VAN HALEN that did not feature Michael Anthony? GN'R is admittedly a different beast, though. Many have forgetten that during the marathon "Use Your Illusion" tour, the group's ranks, which by that point no longer featured Steven Adler and Izzy Stradlin, had swollen to 12, including two female backing vocalists/dancers and a three-piece horn section. Today's seven-piece lineup feels positively streamlined by comparison.
Still, there's something admirable about GN'R wanting to connect its storied past with the players who performed on and toured in support of "Chinese Democracy", a divisive yet fascinating album whose material comprised much of the band's set lists for the last decade or so. Indeed, seeing Slash and Duff play its sneering title track, "This I Love" and "Better" last night legitimized that era of GN'R, and also provided an olive branch to the fans who supported it.
Let's be clear, though: No one in Las Vegas paid to hear "Chinese Democracy" songs performed live. The real draw, as has always been the case for GN'R, is material from "Appetite For Destruction", the band's lightning-in-a-bottle debut that rivals "Back In Black" as the best hard rock album of the '80s. That's not meant to dismiss the "Use Your Illusion" albums, which for 25 years have served as rock's best ice-breaker ("Get In The Ring" still makes my personal single-disc version, and if you say otherwise, I'll kick your bitchy little ass), but despite the fact that they spawned nine MTV staples and sold millions of copies, they simply don't match the power — and staying power — of "Appetite", which is likely why the band performed just two "UYI" originals during last week's gig at L.A.'s Troubadour.
To the disappointment of those who shelled out hundreds of dollars on the secondary market to attend last night's show (originally billed as GN'R's tour kickoff), the Troubadour concert marked the first time since 1993 that Axl, Slash and Duff shared the stage. That prospect seemed impossible as recently as four years ago, when the group was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and Axl famously declined to attend the induction ceremony. Apparently time, or at least the prospect of enormous stadium-tour paydays, heals all wounds.
Speaking of wounds, last night's show saw Axl sporting a cast on his left foot, which was apparently injured as he slipped during the Troubadour show. Considering the recent rumors about the reunion nearly falling apart before it even started, it's just the kind of thing you'd expect to cause postponments, cancellations or worse — but to Axl's credit, he made lemonade last night. Just after midnight — and nearly an hour and a half after openers ALICE IN CHAINS completed their set — a large throne decorated with flood lights and guitar necks was wheeled onto the stage. For most of the 140 minutes that followed, Axl sat front and center with his injured foot elevated. Considering how much he normally moves around the stage, it's unfortunate that he was immobilized to such a degree, but on the bright side, he sounded sensational. Noticeably slimmer and clean-shaven, with shaggy, shoulder-length hair, he also looked rejuvenated compared to the pimp/godfather image he projected during the "Chinese Democracy" tour.
As they did at the Troubadour, the band opened its Vegas set with a double-shot of "Appetite" favorites in "It's So Easy" and "Mr. Brownstone". The staging wasn't anything special — a large video screen hung above the stage, with two smaller ones on either side — but as you heard these classics performed live, you realized it's not about what's on the stage, but who. Seeing Duff play the opening notes of "It's So Easy" and hearing him harmonizing with Axl while Slash, sporting a top hat and sunglasses, was hunched over his Les Paul on stage left felt just as exciting as you hoped it would.
It was a ballsy move to perform the title track of "Chinese Democracy" just three songs in, but Slash gave the song a swagger it had always lacked. For those scoring at home, he handled the first part of the solo before passing the baton to Fortus, who then tackled the Buckethead section — which for the last few years was performed by Bumblefoot. (Confused yet?)
After four roadies pushed Axl's throne a bit further toward stage right, he introduces fan favorite "Estranged". Although the video accompaniment displayed jellyfish rather than dolphins for whatever reason, a fan in the front row waved what appeared to be an inflatable porpoise throughout the song. 25 years ago, that might have caused Axl to jump into the crowd, walk off stage and/or indirectly incite a riot, but in Vegas, he was all business during the song, matching the power of Slash's haunting solos with a riveting vocal performance.
After a pyro-drenched "Live And Let Die" — during which Axl unleashed three remarkable primal screams — and a stretched-out "Rocket Queen", the always powerful "You Could Be Mine" gave the singer a chance to show off both his sense of humor (via his customary "with your ass in the air" quip) and his unrivaled piss-and-vinegar vocal delivery. A trio of surprises followed: Duff singing a cover of THE DAMNED's "New Rose"; the band's first performance of "UYI" I's epic finale "Coma" since 1993; and a completely unexpected yet absolutely chilling rendition of the "ChiDem" ballad "This I Love" that, between Axl singing his ass off and Slash delivering a letter-perfect solo, might well have been the show's emotional highlight.
The third and final "Chinese Democracy" song performed, "Better", was also a revelation. The band added a dark, heavy intro and stronger backing vocals that gave the song a completely different flavor, and after Slash nailed another sharp solo, it was finally clear why the album took Axl more than a decade to complete: It was missing something. It was missing this.
It's impossible to pick a favorite moment from the final hour of the show, for highlights were plentiful: the powerful "Civil War"; a well-crafted instrumental medley of "Wish You Were Here" and "Layla" that led into "November Rain"; and a confetti-drenched "Paradise City". On the flip side, a nearly 10-minute rendition of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" was a bit too drawn out, but Axl's performance of the song showed far more restraint than usual and held your interest throughout. (It's too bad he didn't request any reggae, though.)
While it might seem like a letdown that the show featured no guest stars, it's hard to imagine that anyone who watched the band take its final bow at 2:25 a.m. was disappointed by what they'd just witnessed. Against all odds, in a city that lives and dies by them, GN'R felt like GN'R again.
01. It's So Easy
02. Mr. Brownstone
03. Chinese Democracy
04. Welcome To The Jungle
05. Double Talkin' Jive
07. Live And Let Die (Paul McCartney & WINGS cover)
08. Rocket Queen
09. You Could Be Mine
10. New Rose (THE DAMNED cover)
11. This I Love
13. Speak Softy Love (Love Theme From "The Godfather")
14. Sweet Child O' Mine
16. Civil War
17. Wish You Were Here / Layla (instrumental)
18. November Rain
19. Knockin' On Heaven's Door (BOB DYLAN cover)
22. Paradise City