It's dubbed the Not In This Lifetime Tour, and for over twenty years, that's certainly what it seemed like. The egos and acrimony that led to the implosion of Guns N’ Roses’ classic lineup in 1993 seemed like an insurmountable barrier while Axl Rose carried the banner for years with ever-changing lineups and one inconsistent tour after another. One of the mightiest rock bands of the last thirty years had been reduced to a perennial Pitchfork punchline. But Duff McKagan rejoined the group for a string of South American shows in 2014, and then rumors started to swirl last fall that Slash was back in the fold as well. Was it possible that Guns N’ Roses were righting the ship after two decades? On Tuesday night at Paul Brown Stadium, ten dates into the high-profile reunion, the answer was a resounding “Yes.” Their two hour and 40-minute set was polished, professional, generous, fun, and, towards the end, even historic.
Fans were ready for this show. The crowd was a sea of t-shirts emblazoned with the band’s resurrected classic-era bullet logo and the Appetite for Destruction cover, and I even spotted some faded tour shirts from the Use Your Illusion era. The show wasn’t close to a sellout (it might’ve been at the smaller Great American Ball Park), but the turnout was impressive for a smaller market on a summer weeknight. Fans with upper deck tickets were relocated to seats in the towards the back of the lower bowl and the club level, and those sections were packed to the gills by the time Gn’R stormed the stage with “It’s So Easy” right at 9:30. The band is clearly taking this opportunity seriously; Axl was in great shape, physically and, despite a slow start, vocally. By the time they roared through “Rocket Queen” about 40 minutes into the set, it was as if no time had elapsed since his heyday. He’s not the sinewy skeletal figure he once was, but his self-confident swagger is instantly recognizable the instant he struts onstage.
But it was Slash who owned the stage and the songs all night long. Armed with a veritable rotating museum of Gibson guitars (and a line of five Marshall amps), the legendary axeman shredded his way through one hit after another, cool as a cucumber under his signature top hat and jet-black curls. Even when the band is at its most self-indulgent (as, for better and for worse, they occasionally were on Tuesday), his guitar work is thrilling and compelling, his lightning-quick solos imbued with melodic warmth, not just cold precision. In 2016, how many guitarists can hold the rapt attention of 40,000 people, let alone elevate his band back to stadium status simply by returning to the fold? I can think of exactly one.
Much of the evening came in the form of a hit parade, starting with the Appetite-heavy opening salvo. The venue, home of the Bengals, is emblazoned with the words “Welcome To The Jungle,” and unsurprisingly, the crowd exploded when Slash shredded the intro to the song of the same name. Their famed cover of “Live and Let Die” was joined by fireworks and pyrotechnics (this was a trend throughout the evening), and back-to-back Use Your Illusion epics “Civil War” and “Coma” did the heavy lifting in the middle of the set. No song drew a bigger reaction, though, than “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Slash stood astride two monitors at the front of the thrust stage during an extended instrumental take on Andy Williams’ “Speak Softly Love” (best known from The Godfather), and at its quietest moment fluidly drew the iconic riff seemingly out of thin air. The roar of Gn’R at full bore is something to behold, fierce, full-bodied, aggressive.
The big surprise of the night came shortly thereafter, and it was a doozy: for the first time since April, 1990, Axl invited Steven Adler, the band’s original drummer, onstage. Adler was present for the band’s 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (Axl was not), but hasn’t played any part in this year’s proceedings, and it was assumed that his health issues would keep him away. But there he was, grinning from ear to ear while he absolutely nailed Appetite classics “Out Ta Get Me” and “My Michelle.” It’s still unclear why Cincinnati was lucky enough to witness this, or whether or not Adler will guest at future tour dates, but it was just another moment that hammered home the intentional irony of the tour’s name.
While Slash and Frank Fortus traded solos over the chords to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” stage crew set up a full grand piano at the front of the stage. There are plenty of worthy contenders for the greatest Guns N’ Roses song, and “November Rain” is definitely one of the leaders. It is the ultimate power ballad, miles ahead of most of its brethren in that category, magnificently written and punctuated by THREE monstrous guitar solos from Slash. Sparks poured from the roof of the stage as he wailed on the final one, clustered with McKagen by Axl’s piano, in the finest musical moment of the night. Rose got the crowd singing on their cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” before they closed the main set with the pounding “Nightrain,” itself introduced by an actual train horn which adorned the front of the stage.
As midnight (and the two-and-a-half-hour mark) loomed, Slash, McKagen, and Fortus returned to the stage (the latter pair armed with acoustic guitars) for a pretty jam that found its way into “Patience,” the only track from G N’ R Lies to make the setlist cut. With the band back at full force, they launched into a cover of The Who’s “The Seeker,” which was such an uncannily perfect fit for the band’s sound that it makes one wonder why they didn’t try it decades ago. Only one big hit remained, and the booming kickdrum of “Paradise City” echoed through the stadium, accompanied by (more) fireworks and a cloud of confetti which swirled around the guitarists as they rode the song’s frenzied coda to its peak. All eight musicians--Adler included--returned to the stage for a final bow before disappearing into the night.
What Guns N’ Roses brought to Cincinnati was an unabashed nostalgia trip, but one that did justice to their original run. Guns N’ Roses will not set the world on fire again. But they did once, and Tuesday night caught more than just a flicker of that old flame. Any skepticism about this tour (full disclosure: I had plenty) should be cast aside. The band has jettisoned the volatility of their unreliable adolescence, and lost some of their edge in the process, but what remains is a slam-dunk stadium rock band, a breed of which very few survive.
It’s So Easy
Welcome to the Jungle
Double Talkin’ Jive
Live and Let Die (Wings cover)
You Could Be Mine
Attitude (Misfits cover)
This I Love
Speak Softly Love (Love Theme from The Godfather) (Andy Williams Cover)
Sweet Child O’ Mine
Out Ta Get Me (with Steven Adler)
My Michelle (with Steven Adler)
Slash and Frank Fortus guitar solo
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan cover)
The Seeker (The Who cover)