Guns n’ Roses
At Staples Center
Fri., Nov. 24
I’ll admit it… as a rock chick, journalist and music dork, I pretty much always want to be at “the buzz gig.” I mean, don’t we all? Ya know, the not-so-secret surprise set by the huge band everybody loves or pretends to love in the tiny local club; or the “this-is-it…no-really-we’re-done-forever” farewell arena show; and of course, the “reunion” show, in which feuding and/or fucked up bandmates finally bury the hatchet or bury the booze/drug problem long enough to grant fiending fans their one life-long wish to see their heroes together again on stage, playing the soundtrack of their youth no matter the cost. And yes, it always costs.
But when the reunion of Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan was first announced almost two years ago, I felt somewhat ambivalent about it, and I wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe it was because they decided to do it at Coachella (clearly I wasn’t the only one with mixed feelings about that: read this and this). Maybe it was the fact that I’ve been covering the back and forth between GnR’s members for decades, from Axl’s faux version of the band to that time Duff joined Axl on stage to Slash’s several attempts at capturing Guns’ velocity with other vocalists. Maybe it was the Izzy factor (rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, who wrote some of their best cuts, tweeted that the other guys didn’t want to “share the loot” with him soon after the reunion was announced).
Maybe it was simply my fandom –I had their poster on my bedroom wall as a teen- and a jaded part of me that didn’t want to taint what they used to be with a bloated, less than brutal or bombastic modern version of GnR. Appetite For Destruction was one of the most provocative, game-changing records of all time and I don’t think the band were ever really able to live up to it. I found Use Your Illusion (both parts) pretty cheesy, with a couple exceptions. Anyway, every single music journalist in my orbit wanted the GnR assignment, and coupled with all of the reasons above, I very consciously sat out Coachella, The Troubadour show and last year’s Dodger Stadium concert.
But after hearing about the “epic” 3 ½ hour shows, eye-popping production and collective sonic virility that the band have been displaying since starting the “Not In This Lifetime” tour, I was more than curious to catch them as they came back around to my and their hometown. Friday night, they brought the much-touted reunion tour to the Staples Center (Saturday they followed it up at The Forum, and you can still catch them this Wednesday night). The verdict? Even after more than a year of touring together, playing the early hits, some covers and some later-era misses (but really does anyone need to hear stuff off Chinese Democracy?), today’s Guns n’ Roses still put on a hell of a show, and not just in the sense of arena rock grandiosity.
The bells and whistles and sex and fire is still there, but more importantly the musicianship is still there and then some. Guns n’ Roses never half-assed anything when they were in their 20s, and they haven’t changed now that the core members are in their 50s. Their defiant nature and somewhat self-absorbed personas kinda don’t allow them to go through the motions or just do it for the paycheck. They’re a go-big-or-go-home type of band, for better or worse. As a long-time fan I guess I should’ve guessed this would be the case, but I’ve seen bigger rockgods get soft over the years, and these guys have been pretty unpredictable… so really, who knew?
Anyone who’s shelled out big bucks for this tour has surely felt like they got their money’s worth, with 30+ songs, Axl’s copious costume and hat changes, solos and sing-a-longs, jammy moments and tributes too. Guns give so much these days, they’ve done away with an opening act, and it wasn’t missed. Friday’s setlist was similar to their last LA show with a few change-ups. Duff, who always does a punk number, covered The Damned’s “New Rose” (while nodding to LA in a Germs t-shirt) instead of The Stooges as he did last time, and the band played Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” which they added to the setlist upon Chris Cornell’s death. Those of us hoping to hear what Axl sounded like in his stint with AC/DC were disappointed though. They’ve played “Whole Lotta Rosie” for years and on this tour, so in the wake of Malcom Young’s passing, not getting the song (or any AC/DC… he only said a few words) was a glaring omission on Friday, especially since the band devotes so much of the show to forefathers they’ve covered in the past such as Paul McCartney (“Live and Let Die”), Bob Dylan (“Knocking on Heaven’s Door”), and Pink Floyd (“Wish You Were Here”).
The covers were highlights of course, showing off Rose’s still-astounding vocal range and Slash’s merciless and magical guitar work, which remains mesmerizing on both electric and acoustic, the later providing some very rousing and romantic Santana-like moments. Yes, Rose did go off-key a couple times, but as a whole his performance was hard to fault. He hit the notes most of the time, he did the signature side-to-side glide, and he interacted with his bandmates like they were his bros, all having a good time. One might even surmise that Guns n’ Roses are really getting along these days!
The tour’s name is mostly a reference to Slash and Rose’s long-running feud, of course. McKagen was always pretty chill and open-minded about the band’s contentiousness, and these days he just might be the buffer that makes this whole thing possible. Nonetheless, he provides a badass backbone and steady basslines for the group, which is quite essential up there. Also, he looks damn cool. They all do actually. Nobody’s going shirtless these days, but Guns have retained their ominous rock n’ roll style and then some, with help from a vivid set and visual backdrops as well as sound effects.
I should note here that the danger and drama they seek to evoke on stage might possibly leave some a little uneasy, and shockingly, I haven’t seen it mentioned in other reviews. Throughout the show the band uses lots of gun imagery and loud gunfire sound effects. It’s an obvious self-referential thing, and it is powerful in some ways, but in the wake of this past year’s slew of concert shootings, it comes off a bit tone deaf. It’s a credit to the band and its material that most of the crowd was so immersed in the music and players themselves, that they probably didn’t realize how shooting gun sounds at a concert might be interpreted negatively, especially in an indoor venue like Staples.
In the end, though, it was all about positivity and dare I say it, love, on stage and in the crowd Friday night. As the band capped off the exhaustive show with its exultant ode to Los Angeles, “Paradise City” (the flipside to the foreboding “Welcome To The Jungle”) the vibe was one of celebration and hope. GnR pulled off a lot this year, and no one can deny that this reunion raged and engaged, even without former players Stradlin, Steven Adler, Matt Sorum, or Gilby Clarke. With the current lineup (including keyboardist Dizzy Reed and new keyboardist Melissa Reese, drummer Frank Ferrer, and rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus) Guns have found a groove and then some. Their arm in arm group bow at the end of the extensive spectacle felt warm, real and climactic. Not sure if they can or will want to create new material together moving forward, but no band today can do what they can with this catalog and classic covers. None. Basically, if you get a chance to see them in this lifetime (Wednesday night marks the end of the North American Tour and they’ll be in Europe next year), don’t be ambivalent- pull the trigger and buy a ticket.
Guns n’ Roses play The Forum, Wed., Nov. 29.
It’s So Easy
Welcome to the Jungle
Double Talkin’ Jive
Live and Let Die (Wings cover)
You Could Be Mine
New Rose (The Damned cover)
This I Love
Slash Guitar Solo
Speak Softly Love (Love Theme From “The Godfather”)
Sweet Child O’ Mine
Wichita Lineman (Jimmy Webb cover)
Used to Love Her
Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd cover)
November Rain (with ‘Layla’ intro)
Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden cover)
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan cover)
The Seeker (The Who cover)