- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It was the concert I’d waited my whole life for. Axl, Slash, Duff together again on one stage playing through the Guns N’ Roses catalogue. By the time I was old enough to even go to concerts, the seminal ‘80s hard rock combo was already a memory, and I’d said for decades I would spend whatever it took to see them if and when the time came.

Sunday night, the time had come. At FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, following a stirring warmup from Alice in Chains, Guns took the stage for what would be a spirited, nearly three-hour travelogue through their well-known archive of slammers, plus some deeper delves into the repertoire, as well as a few inspired surprises.

One thing must be made clear right up front: The boys in the band are, of course, older than they once were. They’re now three decades removed from “Appetite for Destruction” and almost as long since they were the biggest act in the world. The intervening years — in which Axl Rose fronted various incarnations of the band, while Slash and Duff McKagan joined with Guns 2.0 drummer Matt Sorum and Scott Weiland to form Velvet Revolver — have seen music move on from the L.A. hard rock sound of their heyday, but none of that mattered Sunday evening.

First, the lineup. Mr. Rose, Mr. McKagan and Slash are the only three of the “classic” Guns members in the current iteration, with original drummer Steven Adler the first to be bounced from the band back in the day, and original rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin having traded the glitz and glamour of rock for a quiet life in the early ‘90s. The only member of the Guns 2.0 in the “Not in This Lifetime…” tour is keyboardist Dizzy Reed, who has played with Mr. Rose for some time. The outstanding Richard Fortus shreds like nobody’s business on rhythm guitar, with magnificent drummer Frank Ferrer celebrating 10 years in the band, and backing vocalist and synthesizer player Melissa Reese rounding out the posse.

But what everyone was here to see was the three original members march through the hits. They were not to be disappointed.

Following a somewhat-lengthy intermezzo after opener Alice in Chains stepped off stage, the GNR logo presented an animated show of firepower, followed by the classic “Looney Tunes” theme song, a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment that, after all these years, the Guns were here to have a good time.

The band jumped right in without smoke or speeches into “It’s So Easy,” the second track off of “Appetite,” followed by “Mr. Brownstone.” It was a thrilling opening salvo that was brought down a bit with “Chinese Democracy,” the titular track from the 2008 album that was as legendary for its lengthy gestation as it was for its departure from the classic GNR sound.

Immediately on its heels, Mr. Rose screamed into the mic: “You know where you are?!” The crowd roared as it could mean only thing, as Slash kicked off the unmistakable opening riff of the band’s most anthemic song, “Welcome to the Jungle.”

Next was “Double Talkin’ Jive,” a deep cut from the “Use Your Illusion” double album set, and a song that was neither a hit nor a video. It was good to hear something from more obscure in the Guns oeuvre, and Mr. Rose didn’t trip up on the rather rat-a-rat rap that is the vocal part on the brisk song. However, Slash and Mr. Fortus used the song’s downtempo final moments to riff on the Spanish flamenco-influenced bars that close it out on the album.

“Estranged,” the nine-minute, multipart epic poem from “Use Your Illusion II” — and whose video was the most expensive ever produced up to that time — was masterfully realized live, with Mr. Rose — whose side job now is singing for AC/DC after the “forced retirement” of Brian Johnson — seemingly hitting his groove as far as relaxing into his voice rather than trying to impress the gathered. Slash’s solos on the tune were a master’s class in rock ‘n’ roll ax-slinging, as the 50-year-old has only gotten better in his many years in the rock scene.

The joy of nailing the song was palpable, as several times during “Estranged,” Mr. Rose came up to Slash and laid his elbow on the guitarist’s shoulder, as much an acknowledgment that their decades of not speaking and the band’s internecine conflicts were astern (for now) as it was a reinforcement for the audience that this was in fact the legendary act they grew up with and not an impostor or strictly trotted out for nostalgia.

Of nostalgia itself, it must be said that Guns didn’t waste any time to wax poetic about the long, strange trip they’ve been through since forming on the Sunset Strip in the mid-‘80s, nor to fall into that trap so many acts of their generation — or older — do by making self-flagellating cracks about their age. No, this was the in-your-face rock ‘n’ roll that perfected its sound along Sunset Blvd. and still turned up, if not to 11 (while loud, the audio amplitudes in FedEx Field were never uncomfortable to the eardrums), enough so that the air above the Redskins’ home base could thrum with the GNR message: We may have gone away for a while, but dammit, we still have it.

To underscore the lack of maudlin pining for the glory days, the band then launched into “Rocket Queen,” the closing song on “Appetite” notorious for including an in-studio recording of Mr. Rose having sex with Mr. Adler’s then-girlfriend. Such shenanigans were nowhere to be found Sunday, but during the breakdown before the tune’s final section, Slash blasted off into a virtuosic solo that he topped off by stepping up to the microphone — a rarity for the guitarist — and amplifying the proceedings with the talk box that Peter Frampton made famous. Slash, and the band, seemed tremendously unhurried in the song, and the axman took his time to make sure that he had the audience in the palm of his pick hand before changing the key so that Mr. Rose could return to close out the final chorus that begins, “I see you standing, standing all on your own.”

“Rocket Queen” was, bar none, the highlight of the evening.

Of Slash, what else could be written that hasn’t already been done? What so many ascribe to be, Slash does effortlessly with his playing. We all know the chords of the GNR tunes, but Slash turned every song into something that had to be seen and heard live — in other words, to be experienced among fellow fans rather than playing it exactly as it sounds on the records.

Furthermore, the lead guitarist even had time to toss in some in-joke classic rock references, such as, during the closure of “Civil War,” throwing in a few bars from Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child,” all but teasing the audience with what, and where, the band might go next.

Slash and Mr. Fortus make for a stellar guitar duo. Sure, it’s hard not to miss Mr. Stadlin or his Guns 2.0 ‘90s replacement, Gilby Clarke, but Mr. Fortus‘ virtuosity slinging the strings never felt outmatched by the godfatherliness of Slash at lead, and he seemed as at home in the ensemble as if he had been there from the get-go.

In yet another surprise tune, late in the show, Slash came out alone. Bathed in a solitary spotlight, he began thrumming the strings before making his guitar sing a lick that seemed familiar at first, before he followed it with more notes that drew a collective smile at floor level as it became obvious Slash was in fact applying his own variation on the theme from “The Godfather.” Mr. McKagan and Mr. Fortus then joined in the delightfully meta jam that, ever so subtly yet logically, transitioned into “Sweet Child of Mine.”

Mr. Rose, he of the immense range going from bass all the way up to an inhuman soprano falsetto, was as spirited as during his prime, even if some of the notes in the ceiling of his register were a bit out of his reach at times. His vocals at spots were sometimes difficult to hear, and there were even a few moments where he seemed to forget the words and/or muddle the lyrics. He was the weak spot in an otherwise-superb musical lineup, but a little latitude must be given for the entropy of time, both on his voice and his figure (which has been the subject of much social media ridicule of late). His was the most inconsistent of his bandmates, weak at spots while positively titanic at others, particularly late in the concert on “Out to Get Me,” “Nightrain” and encore-closer “Paradise City,” with Mr. Rose screaming for the Maryland skies that this is how rock ‘n’ roll should be done — loud and unapologetic.

Mr. Rose was not as strong on “Sweet Child” as might have been hoped, but for a man of 54, who has been assaulting his vocal chords with such demanding and variated repertoire for 30 years, he more than made up for some of his spottier singing with his familiar onstage swagger and attitude, running about the platform with energy and verve to spare, as if daring anyone to tell him he’s too old for this s***. He and Slash continuously played off one another’s energies, which made them the best one-two punch in rock for a generation.

Of the immense stage itself, it must be said that, for six musicians, it felt a bit cavernous, with so much of it unused. Mr. Rose and Mr. Fortus seemed to make the most of the space provided, with Slash and Mr. McKagan occasionally ascending the steps for a better viewpoint of the proceedings. This reporter hoped for a brass or backing chorus to appear at some point, if only to utilize all that vacant real estate. Pyrotechnics and killer lighting effects certainly filled in such blanks.

While “Not in This Lifetime…” was certainly a parade of hits, as mentioned, the band did dig deeper, opting not only for “Chinese Democracy” tracks — the bathroom-go-to moments — and a Stooges’ cover fronted by Mr. McKagan, but also lesser-played Guns tunes like the 10-minute dirge “Coma.” The band shined especially brightly on covers such as “The Seeker” from The Who and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” realized as a guitar duet by Slash and Mr. Fortus, which transitioned nicely into the coda of Derek & the Dominoes’ “Layla,” with Mr. Rose front and center on the iconic piano elegy. Already seated at the piano, it made sense to then roll out “November Rain,” which, while undeniably vibrant, suffered somewhat from the lack of the strings and backing chorus that made the melody, and accompanying video, so diabolically memorable. However, once again, Slash picked up the slack with his wunderkind solos.

It was great to hear “Patience” during the encore, with Mr. Fortus on acoustic guitar, and Slash even offering a valediction to the recently departed by quoting subtly from Prince’s “Purple Rain” during the intro. (Mr. McKagan also bore the Purple One’s unique symbol on his bass in tribute to the Minneapolis native, who died in April.) Mr. Rose’s vocals were suitably dulcet on one of the few power ballads the band ever recorded, and it was the only cut from “Lies” that made the setlist (sadly, no “I Used to Love Her” or “Mama Kin”). It was a fine way to kick off the encore that climaxed with the monstrous “Paradise City.”

After the band bowed and the house lights came back up, I found myself in a strange state of reverie mixed with an odd sadness. Ever since first spinning “Appetite” in my tape player (remember those?) in 1989 at 11 years old, I’d awaited the day of a classic GNR show. Now that it was over, I was faced with the uncomfortable prospect of a goal so long envisaged now astern.

Yes, they were older, but so was I. Never would it be possible to be there in the Hollywood heyday of debauchery. It had been one of the best concerts I had been to, at least from a standpoint of personal meaning. It did not disappoint, nor, precisely, did it transcend.

Still, I’m glad I came. I’m glad I was here, and I’m glad I was here now. Perhaps it was providential that six months ago, to the day, my girlfriend at the time betrayed my trust so thoroughly that the relationship was instantly over for me. But long before that, rock had been there for me, as it was this evening. I have met both Slash and Mr. McKagan in my professional travels, always inquiring about “the possible reunion.”

The show at FedEx Field Sunday night showed that, indeed, through rock, all things are possible.

Eric Althoff is the Entertainment Editor for The Washington Times.


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