The lights drop a mere 30 minutes after the advertised GNR set time, and the “Looney Tunes” theme echoes throughout the stadium while the band makes its way on stage. Duff McKagan rips into the bass intro to “It’s So Easy” and the last twenty years seem to disappear instantly. Slash joins him, and when Axl Rose starts singing it hits you: Guns n’ Roses are back. The real Guns n’ Roses. Well most of them, at least.
Not in this lifetime. This is how Axl Rose had described the chances of he and Slash ever reuniting. Well hell has frozen over (or any other similar metaphor): it’s 2016, Slash and Duff are back in Guns n’ Roses and the band is back playing stadiums. Could they live up to the hype, but more so, could they live up to fading memories of their glory days? For sure, the trio looks a little worse for the wear, but the magic is still there as Axl’s distinctive voice duels with Slash’s guitar lines, backed by Duff’s bass and harmonies.
“Mr Brownstone” is next, oozing swagger and attitude. “I used to do a little but a little wouldn’t do so the little got more and more.” Its lyrics on heroin addiction remind us that some of these guys are lucky to be alive to reunite. Then the title track from the much maligned “Chinese Democracy” gives us our first taste of how the post-breakup music could have sounded had the band stayed together. It’s less polished than what the previous incarnation played, but GNR shouldn’t be about being perfect.
“You know where you are? You’re in the jungle baby. You’re gonna diiiiiiiiieeeee!” As the intro to “Welcome to the Jungle” rings out, Axl lets out a long high-pitched scream. His voice has changed with age, but he can still belt these songs out. He also seems much more zen, for lack of a better word. Whatever meds he’s been taking, it looks like they finally kicked in. He looks happy, and in a good mood, but he can still channel the anger when the songs need it. One has to wonder what the band’s fate could have been had he been like that in the 90’s when they went from being the biggest rock band in the world to near extinction.
They then dug deep into their catalog to pull out “Double Talkin’ Jive”, a rarely played track from “Use Your Illusion I”. The song’s extended jam sections allowed Slash and second guitarist Richard Fortus plenty of opportunities to show their guitar chops, and it turns out that Fortus complements Slash’s playing very well.
There’s not a lot of rock bands that can play to a stadium crowd. A select few can fill them, but rare are those whose material is expansive enough to thrive on a huge stage. The “Use Your Illusion” material fits the bill to a T. “Estranged” brought out the bombastic side of the band, and Slash’s touch on the solos was a welcome return to form. “Live and Let Die”, as always, was a primal spectacle with explosions underlining the band’s energetic performance. Overall, the visuals were very simple, with on stage ramps that let the band members occasionally walk up behind the drums and two keyboard stations, where Frank Ferrer, Melissa Reese and Dizzy Reed discretely plied their trade. Two gigantic screens flanked the stage on each side and showed the band members throughout the show.
The band returned to “Appetite For Destruction” with a slightly messy version of “Rocket Queen”, before that familiar drum intro announced another concert favourite “You Could Be Mine”. As a nod to that song’s placement in the movie “Terminator 2”, the screen behind the band showed animations of a cartoon Axl made of liquid metal. On stage, the real world Axl was more active than I expected as he ran across the stage, hopped around or even attempted his famous serpentine dance move.
Duff then took the mic for a spirited rendition of The Misfits’ “Attitude” that was so tight it was more hard rock than punk. Another “Chinese Democracy” track , “This I Love”, had Axl put all his guts and soul into singing. The band lit it up, and breathed new life in a track that often gets overlooked. “Civil War” is another track that seems to expand to the size of the venue, and it felt huge as it built to its climax, with Slash rocking the double neck Gibson and ending it by quoting Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”. The band followed with a mellower deep cut, “Coma”, its hypnotic guitar riff and complex arrangement simply mesmerizing.
Slash then took centre stage for his solo spot, where he showed his shredding skills. Slash can be very sloppy at times, but last night he was in the zone and his playing was mostly impeccable. His solo morphed into the theme from “The Godfather” by Nino Rota, first played faithfully to the original melody and then, as the band joined in, it became a display of guitar virtuosity from the man with the hat. Predictably, it segued into their breakout hit “Sweet Child O’ Mine”.
Strangely, instead of capitalizing on that high, they played two “Chinese Democracy” tracks: the newly added “Sorry” (it was only its second performance of the tour), and “Better”, that didn’t live up to its name as the band sounded lost at time and unable to relate to it. Things got better, much better, with “Out Ta Get Me”, which Axl introduced by relating how they were detained at the Canadian border when customs found a fire arm on their bus. “Hey, it wasn’t MY gun” quipped the singer.
Fortus and Slash played yet another solo spot, this time based on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”. While these spots are really good, you can’t help to think they could use that time to play another track of theirs. Seven covers for a band with such a strong catalog is a strange decision. But maybe it’s for the best; Axl might decide to play a deep cut from “Democracy” instead…
“November Rain” got its usual enthusiastic reception from the crowd, and thank god Slash is back to play the fantastic ending solo. Nothing against Bumblefoot but he used to play it note perfect but without any soul. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” has this chameleon quality where it can be an intimate song when played in a club, or an amazing gospel hymn when played in a stadium. This song drew another inspiring performance out of Axl, even though by that time he’s struggling a little with his voice. The set finished with “Nightrain”, driven by so much energy that it was hard to believe these guys had played for more than two hours.
After an encore break so short it barely qualifies as such, we were treated to a jam on The Rolling Stones’ “Angie”, which segued into “Patience”. The softer song was a welcome change of pace after a night of mostly unbridled rock. A leftover from the pre-reunion setlist, the band played one last cover, “The Seeker” by The Who. I absolutely adored it when they played it the last time I saw them, but this time it was unfocused and ultimately pointless.
As per their tradition, the finale was “Paradise City” which lost some of its effectiveness by played a tad too fast, but nonetheless offered a perfect climax amidst a ton of confetti. The band took its bow and saluted the crowd, and Axl seemed genuinely appreciative of the sold-out (or close to it) crowd’s reaction.
It’s easy to be cynical about a band reuniting in its old age, and this tour may very well be solely motivated by the dollars Live Nation dangled in front of them. But they’ve managed to recapture the magic, which is not always the case. Axl sings better than he has in years, and he seems to have finally reached a happy place.
Guns n’ Roses are back, and they’re playing great. No one knows how long it’ll last so let’s enjoy the ride. They might be the last true rock band to be able to play on such a scale. And now that the impossible has happened, can we dare to wish for the return of Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler?
Opening act was Toronto natives Billy Talent who had the ungrateful task of playing to a near empty stadium, a situation compounded by the fact that they started half an hour before the time listed on the tickets. They got a good reaction from the crowd, but their music was an odd pairing with the headliners. But they are pros and put on a good show.
He's also a regular contributor at the very rad site Montreal Rampage