Guns N' Roses Week: Our Greatest Arena Band (Live Nov 2017)
Shortly before midnight in Chicago on the stage of the United Center, Guns N' Roses are taking their bows moments after the pyrotechnic aftershock of "Paradise City". This wasn't your conventional concert; it was a psychologically and spiritually draining 215-minute show that is amongst the greatest arena shows I've seen by any artist. The very thought of a Guns N' Roses reunion a few years ago seemed far-fetched and impossible, but in 2016 they reunited for the Not In This Lifetime tour which has filled stadiums around the world over the last eighteen months. As the tour is winding down, the band is performing in arenas and these shows may be the most distinguished of their illustrious career. The truth is Guns N' Roses, whether it be the original lineup, the 1991-93 touring version or the 2002-14 version of the band has never been this commanding on a concert stage. The 2017 version of Guns N' Roses are at the top of their game rivaling Bruce Springsteen, U2, Metallica and Pearl Jam for one of the greatest live acts on the planet. They brought drama, sterling musicianship, raw emotion and a penetrating musical workout to this unforgettable performance.
A shadowy Duff McKagan opened the show by walking to the front of the stage where his gyrating bass riff for "It's So Easy" kicked the evening off to a fiery and boisterous beginning. Rose sprinted and snarled, signaling to the crowd that despite their celebrity and legend, Guns N' Roses ready for a fight to prove their worth. As "Mr. Brownstone", "Welcome to the Jungle", "Live and Let Die" and "Rocket Queen" unfolded there was an undeniable command that was downright intoxicating. Even the Chinese Democracy material was seen in a new light with Slash and McKagan reimagining the songs with grit, blues and grease. Chinese Democracy was always underrated by the masses, but in concert they reveal new dimensions proving that the songs hail from the same DNA as their classic material. On "Better", the band has augmented the song with a protracted introduction lead by the divinely dangerous Richard Fortus providing an undercurrent of musical drama. "This I Love", "There Was A Time" and "Madagascar" didn't feel like throwaways but part of a larger picture continuing their story from a man who has wrestled with his demons, used his art as a way of coping and coming out on the other side. Slash's bluesy riffs punctuate the songs with the classic feel of Guns N' Roses and cause many in the audience to these songs are a reflection of his struggle, his heartache and his anguish. Slash colors the songs with his Les Paul guitar, making many who dismissed the songs nearly a decade back to re-evaluate them under a new lens.
During "Welcome to the Jungle" Slash may have had the good fortune to rattle off that infamous opening riff, but it was rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus who stood out appear to be at war with his guitar, aggressively attacking it with Pete Townsend-style windmill swings throwing himself into these songs. Slash let his inner punk and blues stylings come to the forefront on "Double Talkin' Jive". Dressed in a sleeveless shirt and top hat Slash remained front and center for the entirety of the song. On "Coma" Slash meticulously shifted between taut sensibility and expressive Les Paul roars on the ten-minute epic that is a set list miracle. What makes his inclusion on this tour such an absolute joy is the punk rhythm, Chicago blues and high rip-roaring rock riffs he brings to these songs. While he's influenced by dozens across a wide variety of genres, he follows his own muse. He has always been a game changer for Guns N' Roses much like a first round draft pick can make or break a team. You watch him in awe like a top tier athletes never quite sure if what you are witnessing is real.
On the contemplative and melodramatically tangled "Estranged", longtime piano player Dizzy Reed shined broadening his fingers to reach into the depths of Axl's Rose's confessional soul. On stage during the performance Rose strove across the furthermost reaches of the stage with the energy and tenacity of a man half his age while Slash's guitar melodies anchor the nearly ten-minute song through its vast emotional terrains. "Civil War", written in Chicago and taken from a newspaper headline in the summer of 1989, is more timely, relevant and gripping than ever before. The song penetrated the audience with the spookiness whistle to open the song and the winding arrangement highlighted by drummer Frank Ferrer's pinpoint thunder. "Yesterdays", "My Michelle", "Used to Love Her", "Patience" and "Madagascar" were new to the 2017 set list and these songs felt more intimate in the confines of the arena, with Rose spreading his wings for connection. Slash, McKagan and Fortus all wore wireless systems allowing them full capacity to navigate the stage with speed and agility. In a day and age where I've watched several once great live acts stand and barely move, it's refreshing to see a band so steadfast to pleasing the audience.
While the songs remained faithful to their studio counterparts, it was the augmentations, mini jams and understated changes that brought the true theatrics to the performance. The opening of "Rocket Queen" was full of rainy noir with Fortus and Slash providing the right amount of dread. Fortus' solo was quite effective allowing him to flex his six-string prowess. The lyrics featured Rose at is most lovelorn and empathetic. Watching him perform the ending of the song slithering across the stage to punctuate the lyrics is a sight to behold. You may say he's performing, but there's more to it. Whatever he has had to deal with in his life, he expels it onstage through these songs. He has always had an intricate ability to make the audience believe every word escaping his lips is a confessional from within. Tonight was no different. Before guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan returned to the fold, Axl Rose was touring with a fine-tuned and mesmerizing group of musicians. He rarely received the credit he deserved, but the performances were where Rose worked out his demons every night. Having seen him several times between 2006 and 2014, Rose was pushing the band further than they had ever gone which is what makes the Not in This Lifetime tour so astonishing. Drummer Frank Ferrer and rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus were both holdovers from the previous incarnation of the band that stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Slash, Axl and Duff bringing these stories to life.
The highlights were numerous as the band made their way through a 33-song set list covering a good portion of their catalog with a healthy dose of unique covers. "The Godfather Theme" served as a precursor to "Sweet Child O' Mine" which elicited a roar from the audience that few artists will ever hear in their lifetime. The band followed this up with a surprise performance of Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" which was an acoustic delight and hearkened back to the band's 1993 arena tour which featured a nightly acoustic set. Rose relished the moment paying tribute to the recently deceased Campbell. He did the same for Chris Cornell with a strapping cover of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun"
The "Wish You Were Here" guitar duet by Slash and Richard Fortus featured the two of them hovering above the stage while scenic images played behind of them. Their six-string serenade segued into a volcanic "Layla" before the timely "November Rain", featuring Slash and his epic guitar solo at the tip of the stage. He also teased Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed" on his double neck guitar before the sing-a-long of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door". There was even humor before the main set closer "Nightrain". When the train whistle didn't work and Axl smiled at the crowd and shouted "choo choo" before the band launched into a sweltering take on the third track from Appetite.
This Guns N' Roses tour has evolved in a way few could have foreseen. Many acts lose steam as a tour moves on, but Guns N' Roses are taking their show to new heights. In an economy where ticket prices have reached staggering heights, you would think every act would follow the Bruce Springsteen / Guns N' Roses model where they don't leave the stage until both band and fan are exhausted. Their show at the United Center was longer than headline slots by Aerosmith and Motley Crue in recent years combined. You don't perform for 215-minutes for just money, there's a deeper underlying purpose that points towards artistic redemption. The time that Slash, Duff McKagan and Axl Rose spent apart has made them better. With the help of Dizzy Reed (keyboard), Richard Fortus (rhythm guitar), Frank Ferrer (drums), and Melissa Reese (keyboard) Guns N' Roses have never been a more powerful live act. The epic set list full of underlying themes of our disillusioned society performed with zeal by this band of misfits transcends the clichιs of rock n' roll and are showing the world that despite its doubts, they're a force to be reckoned with and still have stories to tell.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Guns N' Roses Week: Our Greatest Arena Band (Live Nov 2017)