(photos: Melissa Geisler)
The reunion of the so-called classic Guns N’ Roses lineup had faced enough obstacles already. Fans complained that original members Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler weren’t on board, and rumors flew that the thaw between formerly fractious band leaders Axl Rose and Slash was less about mending fences than cashing in. So it looked like one more bad omen when news leaked Friday that Rose had broken a bone in his left foot after the group's impromptu warm-up gig April 1st at Los Angeles’ venerable Troubadour, necessitating surgery. But not only did the frontman vow that the show would go on, he and the rest of the band – especially his lead guitarist – delivered a persuasive, often exhilarating reunion show Friday night at Las Vegas’ newest venue, the T-Mobile Arena. And they did it with a little help from Dave Grohl.
After a churning, hit-heavy opening set from Alice in Chains, the ravenous, sold-out crowd waited 90 minutes for the notoriously late Rose to make an appearance. But just before midnight, he arrived to deafening cheers – while sitting on a tricked-out, Middle Ages-era throne complete with light displays that surrounded his head like a glowing aura. The eagle-eyed in attendance noted that the seat looked awfully similar to the throne constructed for the Foo Fighters leader last summer after he broke his leg, but it was only at the end of GN'R’s show that the roadies removed a covering that had obscured the Foos’ iconic “FF” logo underneath. “That’s a good advertisement,” Rose said admiringly of the logo, an indication of the singer’s jovial demeanor throughout his band’s two-and-a-half-hour set.
With his left leg in a cast, Rose was deprived of the frenzied movements he typically brings to his concerts. But the lack of mobility added an unexpected air of regal splendor and humanizing humility to the singer’s collection of schizophrenic songs that veer wildly between impassioned mash notes and toxic kiss-offs. Shrieking, wailing and cooing sweetly from his throne, Rose ruled his kingdom of metaphorical and literal pain, serving as the tortured center of GN'R’s vibrant, melodramatic tunes. And he was clearly in a good mood, smiling frequently, offering a polite “Thank you” each time the crowd roared its approval for a song, and commenting “Nice place you got here” about the spacious but comfy arena that, just the night before, had been christened by hometown heroes the Killers.
The Troubadour show may have been the first time that Rose, Slash and original bassist Duff McKagan have played together since 1993, but any naive hope that these reunion gigs would somehow thrust Guns N’ Roses back in time to the jet-black menace of 1987’s Appetite for Destruction quickly dissipated. Although plenty of Appetite material made the set list, the band’s current configuration – which includes guitarist Richard Fortus, drummer Frank Ferrer, keyboardist/percussionist Dizzy Reed and keyboardist Melissa Reese – emphasizes the sweeping grandeur and cinematic shading that first took hold with the Use Your Illusion records and became even more prominent on the long-simmering Chinese Democracy. Even when Slash and his cohorts locked into the ferocious riffs of “It’s So Easy” or “Welcome to the Jungle,” the combustion was more glitzy Vegas than seedy Sunset Strip.
If Rose and Slash were affected by the whispers that their reunion was spurred by money, they betrayed no unease, the frontman busy hurling his lyrical antagonisms while the guitarist moved around the stage – his features hidden, as always, by his trademark top hat and long, curly black hair. But the lack of overt warmth between them couldn’t obscure a shared, invisible onstage connection. After Rose struggled initially to reach the high notes on Chinese Democracy’s “This I Love,” Slash rescued his comrade with a guitar solo that articulated the song’s anguish and vulnerability with such force that it seemed to embolden the singer when he got back on the mic for the final verse.
Perhaps not surprising for a show that dripped with nostalgia — many in the crowd sported vintage GN'R tour shirts when they weren’t straight-up doing Slash cosplay — individual band members paid tribute to the diverse influences that had once inspired the nascent group but also predicted its fractious future. McKagan took a turn as lead singer, powering through revered British punk-rockers the Damned’s “New Rose,” while Slash and Fortus duetted on an instrumental version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” which led to Rose getting on the piano for a performance of the instrumental coda to “Layla.” The coiled fury of punk sparring with the broad emotional canvas and musical dexterity of 1970s classic rock: That’s one way to describe the warring creative instincts that built up in Guns N’ Roses around the time of the Use Your Illusion albums as Rose began to assert control over the group and indulge his operatic sonic ambitions.
Still, what was cheering about this first official reunion show, which will pave the way for a stop at Coachella and a 21-city tour, is that both halves of the band’s personality got to have their say — and they both flourished. When Rose unfurled the gargantuan Illusion power ballads “Estranged” and “November Rain,” his goopy tales of romantic disillusionment — encompassing everything from sorrow to anger to acceptance to hope — were guided and in some ways ennobled by Slash’s precise playing and Ferrer’s monolithic drumming, which counterbalanced the songs’ bloated running times. (As for Reed and Reese, thus far they only really provide minute instrumental coloring, their contributions drowned in a sea of guitars, bass and drums.)
But the night belonged to the man in the chair. “I see how you could get used to this,” Rose said with a laugh near the end of the show as he limped from his crutches offstage to climb up onto the throne. What was left unsaid was that what has made Rose such a spectacular and often maddening rock star is that, from the beginning, he’s always wanted to wear the crown — and like Macbeth, once he had it, his paranoia and megalomania threatened to become his undoing. In some ways, seeing him at last sitting on a throne felt anticlimactic, even redundant.
Not that Rose’s loyal subjects cared. Even after 150 minutes of pummeling, emotionally fraught hard rock, only a few in attendance left early, most of them stumbling out of the arena after the closing number, “Paradise City,” with a bleary-eyed look and happy, tired smiles. As fans turned for the exits, not many noted that Slash and Rose, on crutches, headed offstage together, their heads turned to one another. It was impossible to know what was being said. But their body language suggested two survivors who recognized a kindred spirit.
“It’s So Easy”
“Welcome to the Jungle”
“Double Talkin’ Jive”
“Live and Let Die” (Paul McCartney and Wings cover)
“You Could Be Mine”
“New Rose” (The Damned cover)
“This I Love”
“Speak Softly, Love” (Andy Williams cover)
“Sweet Child O’ Mine”
“Wish You Were Here” (Pink Floyd cover)
“Layla (Piano Exit)” (Derek and the Dominos cover)
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (Bob Dylan cover)