At the outset, a caveat: Guns N Roses, ‘the most dangerous band in the world’ have not come to and are not coming to dangerous old Pakistan. I have not heard them live per se, so this is not strictly a live performance review. Instead, most of the performances from their much-awaited reunion tour have become available as videos on YouTube. So, I have listened in, as can you. Moreover, the coming together of three of the original members of perhaps the only hard rock band to have really mattered in the last several decades certainly merits a piece. Hence, we proceed.
After the tasters of two Coachella performances and some middling warm up gigs, one got the feeling that a regular full tour was likely to happen. It was too lucrative for it to not take place, once the longstanding feud between singer Axl Rose and lead guitarist Slash had subsided. While Axl proceeded to replace retired singer Brian Johnston in ACDC for a tour, the Guns N Roses ‘Not in This Lifetime’ Reunion tour came together, pulling together in addition to Axl and Slash, original bassist Duff McKagan. Several hired hands who had been previously performing with Axl, back the three up.
The tour opened in June in Detroit, and since then has been gaining momentum. The band now appears on time (as they once did not); there have been no riots, when once they were aplenty (being on time might have something to do with that) and the playing and singing is competent (when it was almost always life-changingly explosive in the past). Presently the tour is on its international leg in South America; thereafter it moves on to Japan, then East Asia and then finally ends at a reachable venue, Dubai on March 3rd, 2017. Many friends are intending to make the trip to Dubai for the concert from all over Pakistan. Me, I am not that eager.
Whether you like or love the tour seems to come down to whether you take it as a nostalgia tour or the tour of a major vital band. If the latter is the case, it works. If it is the former and you value their legacy like I, then there are several reservations.
For one, the performance lacks the feral energy of the past. Axl might hit the right notes but the menace he once consistently imparted to all the songs, appears missing. Aged 54, age seems to have finally caught up with him. There is no more mad running about and jumping off of drum risers. All concerts start with ‘It’s So Easy’ from the staggering Appetitie for Destruction: each of the lines are delivered in time, in key but so without venom, so lines like “I start the fire/ but miss the firefight/ I hit the bulls eye every night” seem all the more underwhelming. Even the misogyny of the lines that follow sounds neutered and only for effect. Plus Axl, unlike Duff, now looks fat and boated, when he was one sinuous and snakelike; when he attempts to snake-dance as in his youth across the stage, it is more hippo-like. It is really painful to see your rock heroes in old age.
Perhaps he is pacing himself through the more than two and a half hours long sets. Perhaps performing for under two hours but with more intensity would have been better. Be as it may, there is certainly no lack of effort on his part.
Slash, 51, unlike Axl has consistently being performing since exiting GNR, either in his solo projects, or with bands like Slash’s Snakepit or Velvet Revolver. He still brings fire to the stage, but he sounds freshest and most interesting on his solos on the much under-rated Chinese Democracy tracks, tracks on which he had not originally played. As a fan of his, I am sorry to report that his solo guitar spots tend to drag: they still lean towards the Godfather theme and sound repetitive, especially if you have followed the band in the past. The band interaction, especially between Axl and Slash at Coachella seemed strained, but now seems to have eased up. Now it seems much more real and they seem to be more at ease with each other. Acting as perhaps a buffer is another original member, Duff McKagan. The years have been particularly kind to Duff who cleaned himself up after GNR, even got a business degree, and is fitter than ever and still brings punk rock integrity to the band.
One fundamental flaw in the present reunion is that, it is really half a reunion. For those in the know, a lot of Guns n Roses was second guitarist, Izzy Stradlin, who wrote a lot of their greatest songs and was their original leader before Axl took over. He is not back. A lot of the charm of the Guns was also Steven Adler, whose essential and energetic (though limited) drumming was replaced previously by Matt Sorum, but never adequately compensated. Adler too has not come back, though he has put a guest appearance in a few concerts. Hired hand Frank Ferrer takes over from Sorum and is non-descript and without personality. Other than the stars, the rest of the band is competent, but pretty anonymous, excepting second guitarist Richard Forus who might not have the star power but still plays with fire. The more interesting former replacements, Bumblefoot, an immensely talented guitarist and Tommy Stinson, ex bassist of the Replacements find no place in the reunion.
Even half-cocked, for most, these Guns appear to be a must see, rather a must listen. They seem to be in decent enough form in the ways that matter, in their playing. For all the star power of Axl, Slash and Duff, it would mean nothing if not for the songs. The songs still rock harder than any other material that has come out in the last thirty or so years and are enough for the price of admission alone. They are muscularly played, even if the band still seems to be finding their way back to the correct tempos and grooves. The song arrangements are pretty much what one has seen before, if you have followed them previously live. Electric version of ‘Patience’ however does not work, and ends up lacking the intimacy of the acoustic arrangement. Interestingly, along with the classic tracks, ‘Paradise City’, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, ‘Sweet Child of Mine’, the set list is spiced with some usual (stuff from their covers album Spaghetti Incident, and Use Your Illusion) and some unusual covers: On the unusual side GNR have turned to classic bands like Pink Floyd (‘Wish You Were Here’), Derek and the Dominoes (‘Layla’) and the Who (‘The Seeker’). Overall, there are a couple of covers too many in each show; more originals would be more welcome.
In terms of production values, this is closer to the Use Your Illusion era large venues, with large number of backing members, than the younger explosive, more stripped down intensity of club days (GNR at the Ritz). Big screens and huge audience make it a you-have-to-be-there sort of an event. The fireworks used to be onstage, now they actually launch fireworks during the encore to compensate.
In conclusion, the tour works best when taken as a nostalgia act. GNR are no longer life-changing and dangerous, but they are still pretty darn good. Whether one makes the expensive trek to catch them on tour, depends ultimately what you seek them out for, for the event, or the promise of GNR prime. In the latter case you may be disappointed; for the former, it may well be one of the best nostalgia experiences around.