Guns N' Roses: Not In This Lifetime Concert Review
Asked for a defining moment of reunited Guns N' Roses shows from this past weekend at Chicago's Soldier Field and I'd point to "Estranged", a nine-minute masterwork from 1991's Use Your Illusion II record. Performed early in the set, it was a moment where the entirety of the reunited line-up coalesced. Dizzy Reed's piano steered the song as his fingers glided across the keys, new keyboardist Melissa Reese layered the underlying emotional terror, rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus diligently churned bleak guitar chords, drummer Frank Ferrer brought raw cohesiveness that paired strikingly with Duff McKagan's vaunting bass. Then there was Slash, who is making his first public appearances with Guns since 1993. Slash's morose guitar chords conjured images of a misty wet street, full of numinous atmosphere, scheming heartache and imminent danger. He needs to be on stage with Axl and Duff if for no other reason than he co-wrote and conjured up these riffs during the bands glory days. Axl Rose, who performed the song without sunglasses, headband or a hat allowing the stadium to look into his eyes, that captures the wonder and the horror of the lyrics. For me, this performance was all about his eyes. Looking at them, seeing the extreme heartache behind them and wanting to reach out and find a way to heal it.
If there was ever a masterclass of graceful and gritty virtuosity, this current incarnation of Guns N' Roses Axl Rose (vocals), Duff McKagan (bass), Slash (lead guitar), Dizzy Reed (keyboard), Richard Fortus (rhythm guitar), Frank Ferrer (drums), and Melissa Reese (keyboard) would be the only one eligible group to teach it. Writing about the Guns N' Roses Not in This Lifetime tour isn't a simple feat because the anticipation for this tour have reached levels not seen in years, at least not at a stadium level. Questions have been swirling around what we could anticipate when the tour was rumored earlier this year. Over two months this summer, Guns N' Roses is playing more than thirty North American stadiums. The band hit the stage fifteen-minutes earlier than planned at 9:15 and with bassist, Duff McKagan firing off the spoke-spinning bass riff to "It's So Easy" and concluded 155-minutes later with a fireworks and pyrotechnic display for the ages of "Paradise City". In between Guns N' Roses delivered a set for the ages that lives up to the legacy, which is a near impossibility considering how much time has passed.
To put the passage of time in perspective:
• The last date of the Use Your Illusion tour occurred in July of 1993 when Bill Clinton was only six-months into his presidency
• Nirvana was prepping their third record In Utero
• Pearl Jam had still not released their second album
• Sheryl Crow had not yet released her debut record
• The Eagles had yet to reunite
• Jerry Garcia was alive
• KISS hadn't put the makeup back on
• The first Star Wars prequel was still six-years away
• Lady Gaga was seven years old
While Axl's reunion with Slash and Duff is something fans have been yearning for, he has never played it safe. While this show exceeded all my expectations, what several in attendance were blissfully unaware of is how compelling and obstinate he has been in the decade before this reunion. The shows I saw with the 2006, 2011 and 2013 incarnations of the band were amongst the best rock n' roll shows I've seen and it was due to Axl's drive, determination and desire to be heard. I have never found Rose to be anything other than an exhilarating performer, one who takes his life with him onstage every night. Rose is not a typical performer who does it for ego or pretensions; I have always felt he hits the stage with every ounce of his being because he knows no other way.
Despite what many of the 55,000 who walked into Soldier Field anticipated, they saw a performer like no other who wears his vulnerability on his sleeve. The past is never quite in the past for Rose he takes it with him and lives it out onstage every night in songs such as "Estranged", "This I Love", "Better", "November Rain", "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "Don't Cry". For the 2016 tour, Rose is looking more agile and ageless than ever before. You never would have known he had a fractured foot just three months ago. The sway dances and svelte moves were effortless with Rose tackling every inch of the stage.
Slash has always been a guitar God and in the years since leaving the band in the late 90s, he has flexed his dexterity in a variety of bands, side projects and most recently with Myles Kennedy. He has always astounded and awed fusing his eclectic influences and making them his own. Slash's guitar work bridges gaps between the blues, punk, classic rock, world and metal music, which are always what separated him from the hundreds of other guitarists in Los Angeles. While fans undoubtedly bought tickets in seeing the songs that defined hard rock for a generation, the deep cuts reigned on the reunited concert stage.
"Double Talkin' Jive" featured broad and unruly finger work by Slash lengthening the song to nearly eight-minutes, without a single self-indulgent second. The opening even has a tease of Metallica's "Master of Puppets" and the end featured some fluid guitar fills that left the audience stunned. As I have mentioned, Axl Rose carried an impossible burden on his shoulders in the years without the original members but he did so with grace and with top tier musicianship, but by allowing Slash back into the fold, it stresses the significance of seeing those who birthed these songs on stage together. Fans who show up to see their favorite songs get what they want, but with Slash now on guitar, his work on deep cuts like "Coma" and "Double Talkin' Jive" he is showing the audience what they need.
Perhaps the most marvelling aspects of the addition of Slash was on the three Chinese Democracy songs included in the set. The title cut is now a ferocious metal-punk hybrid with Slash taking the glacial alternative guitar chord and making them his own. With Slash "This I Love" feel likes a long lost prime Elton John cut from the early 70s. Arguably, the best cut from Chinese Democracy "Better" had robust rearrangement that was a seismic shift in the band's foundation with a ground-splitting opening that slowly erupted into the molten riff from the record. Slash awed and inspired on this cut even doing some understated slide guitar work making the song a forbidden fruit too tempting for even the dissenters to dismiss. His solos were soulful and serving notice to those in attendance, they may have judged a book by its cover. One has to wonder now if these songs will be looked upon with fresh eyes.
Directing the foundational pulse with drummer Frank Ferrer, Duff McKagan was a remarkable sight on the stage. Whether he was guiding the band, anchoring Rose and Slash or harmonizing on several songs, he reminded fans what a versatile and vibrant musician he is. He opened the show and stole it during "Coma", with his syncopation echoing the setting of the decadent sunset strip. The blonde haired tattooed bassist was level-headed and cool and is possibly the one who appeared to be enjoying himself the most highlighted by his taking lead vocals on a pair of covers. Friday night it was the Damned's "New Rose" and Sunday it was the Stooges "Raw Power". The into for both songs was a heartfelt and meaningful tribute to legendary New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders with "You Can't Put Your Arm Around A Memory" (all of which are available on the band's 1993 punk covers album The Spaghetti Incident?).
McKagan for the entirety of the show flexed a ferocious appetite for the material shifting between sturdy rhythm, funky interludes and raw exactness. McKagan was a focal point throughout the show interplaying with every member of the band, providing lively backing vocals and being in lockstep with drummer Frank Ferrer laying the foundation that the rest of the band, most notably Slash and Axl Rose. Each member has become more adept in their instrument over the last two decades with McKagan's skills being the most understated and crucial.
The Set List & Show
The band has crafted a stout set list capturing several highpoints from their storied career from the first song the band ever wrote, "Don't Cry" to classic covers to material from 2008's Chinese Democracy . Those looking at the set list will notice the majority of the songs were played by the last incarnation of the band but will be pleasantly surprised, as extended solos and innovative arrangements make this something not witnessed since Slash was last in the band. It is also hard to complain about any show containing "Civil War", "Estranged" and "Coma". The first night Axl told the crowd he took some of the lyrics for "Civil War" from a newspaper headline he saw in a 7-11. Both "War" and "Estranged" were worked on heavily in the summer of 1989 when the band used the city as a rehearsal space for the Illusion records making these performances a homecoming of sorts for them and the band.
"Coma" only made three appearances on the 1991-93 tour, with one of the performances occurring at the Chicago area arena in Rosemont. A bootleg captured from the screen performance thankfully documented this song for the ages and for this tour, it has become a nightly staple that is nothing short of epic. Those suspicious of Richard Fortus on guitar were silenced after beholding his windmill guitar. The band solidified this incarnation with a pulverizing performance that came off better than anyone ever could have imagined. There was fire, hunger and a desperation rolling through their veins that hauled the audience into the eye of the hurricane.
The show zigzagged through several varied intersections revealing the gravity of the bands catalog goes beyond the destruction and carnal chaos of their legendary debut Appetite For Destruction which was conveyed with the same spirit and resolve heard on the record. The solos were not atypical solos, but jams of legendary classic rock covers from the likes of Pink Floyd (an instrumental "Wish You Were Here"), Dereck and the Dominoes (the outro of "Layla) with full band renditions of "The Seeker", "Live and Let Die" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door". Guns N' Roses bridge a gap between Mick Taylor era Stones, Motörhead and the Allman Brothers Band flexing their skill but without losing the intimacy of any of the songs.
While stadiums are a tough sell for any music fan, the anticipation in the air from the fans is making this unlike any concert experience in recent memory. There is a tangible excitement in the air that makes the reactions to songs such as "Welcome to the Jungle", "November Rain", "Rocket Queen" and "You Could Be Mine" an out-of-body experience.
Despite more than two decades having passed between the last time the three core members toured, Guns N' Roses was as active and physical as I have ever seen. The occasion is a momentous one that should not work, but it does gloriously. The first embodiment of the band was a result of collision and chemistry while the 2016 manifestation is one of professionalism, proficiency and passion. No one ever thought the personalities would gel or see eye-to-eye in such a fashion that a tour of this magnitude would ever be possible. Seeing them onstage is a miracle unto itself, but watching the intricate mastery of these songs, while still maintaining the sleazy swagger they were incepted with is truly something to behold.
Much like Beyoncé is redefining what pop music is capable of Guns N' Roses is reminding everyone what rock 'n' roll is truly capable of. You can call it nostalgia but the truth is the catalog of Guns N' Roses has never had more observant ears than they do right at this moment. When Axl Rose removes the glasses, he is letting us in reminding us the carnage and wreckage of his past is never far behind. It was evident in his eyes and his stories with the message being best delivered by those who knew him before sold-out stadiums and platinum records. Slash and Duff McKagan helped shepherd these songs by putting extra care into them and underlining proportions few knew existed. They are reigniting the passion of the past by taking their audience with them into the future.
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
Read our review of 'Chinese Democracy'.
Read our review of the 'Use Your Illusion' albums.
Read our review of their 2006 concert.
Read our review of at their 2011 concert
Read our review of 'Appetite For Destruction'.
Guns N' Roses: Not In This Lifetime Concert Review
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