It is simply impossible to fairly provide an account of Guns N’ Roses momentous and long-awaited return. It was instant history, the type that occurs once in a lifetime.
When GNR took to the stage Friday at the Troubadour, it was the final release of many years of pent up speculation and prayers of a long-in-the-tooth, yet absolutely devoted fan base. As if out of scenes of the most genuine rock-n’-roll movie ever made, the energy inside and outside the venue was visible. Santa Monica Boulevard on a Friday night is always hectic. But on this night, it should have been shut down to accommodate the desperate masses who had not gained access via an in-person ticket sale earlier in the day.
Though there was much whispered discussion of the pop-up show, no proper confirmation ever surfaced. That did not deter hundreds of fans who lined up — starting Thursday night — to buy tickets at the old Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. Those that braved a night on the sidewalks of the Strip were rewarded at day break, when they learned that tickets to a show at the nearby Troubadour would become available at noon.
Fast forward to 10am. The overnight gathering had evolved in to a true modern happening. Social media was lit a fire by the band’s morning announcement of a forthcoming tour, but more importantly, of the show that night at the tiny, storied Troubadour. Helicopters flew overhead and news outlets began to assemble. Late comers raced up the hill of Horn Avenue, hoping to still have a chance.
By noon, the particular destinies of the fans began to come clear. About 250 people in line (ultimately, those who had joined the queue from 8pm the night before, to about 7:30am the morning of) were granted access to buy rock n roll’s golden ticket. Set at merely $10–a price probably similar to that for GNR’s original appearance at the Troubadour circa 1985–they were scooped up instantly, leaving the hundreds of those late comers hungry and desperate.
With wristbands affixed to weary arms, the question of “Will I get in?” shifted to, will the music match the moment? Specifically, would the chemistry of a band that authored a ridiculous portion of today’s musical canon, thrive as it once did?
(Photo Credit: Kyle Smith)
There are those that view similar reunions as nothing but a so-called money grab. But something felt different on this day. The money will assuredly follow, but this performance was about redemption. This performance was a chance to reappear on the scene as a vibrant, relevant, kick-ass band. It was an impossible task, but that is exactly what Guns N’ Roses did.
For 23 years, anticipation and hope built up to this very moment. Now just past midnight, Axl Rose’s trademark red foam microphone had just been placed on stage, when those on the left side of the house may have been able to see through a small opening the members of GNR emerge from a back alley outside the venue where they could, without a doubt, hear the crowd summon them with chants of their name.
It is intoxicating to wonder from where they came. Rehearsals? A debaucherous pre-show gathering, or maybe a shitty ’90s limousine? Regardless, in a true rock-n’-roll moment, the band members entered the building through the cracked side door, and immediately on to the stage. The surreal sense of excitement was over the top. This is the stuff of legend.
(Photo Credit: Kyle Smith)
The lineup of the band alone caused endless pre-show chatter online. In the end, the group included Axl, Slash, bassist Duff McKagan, Use Your Illusion-era keyboardist Dizzy Reed, guitarist Richard Fortus, drummer Frank Ferrer, and the first female member of GNR, Melissa Reese. Kicking the door in with “It’s So Easy,” it was immediately apparent that the band–and Axl–were prepared. Rose affably greeted the front row attendees with mid-song high fives and handshakes, putting to rest any concern about the mercurial front man’s current state of temperament.
The opener seamlessly faded in to the filthy scratch intro of “Mr. Brownstone.” Halfway through the song, Axl, who was standing on a monitor, fell backwards on to the stage. Some held their breath. Would this be the immediate derailment that cynics have batted about for months? No. Axl rose from the floor, gathered himself, and fought on energetically, his famous vocals often reaching the stratospheric heights that they once did.
It was surprising to hear the title track from 2008’s Slash-less Chinese Democracy played by Slash himself. The infamously arduous album never gained traction among the masses. Nevertheless, it felt a part of the performance.
Cockily remarking, “You might know this one,” Axl and the band launched in to the battle cry intro of “Welcome to the Jungle.” Set in the city for which it is widely known, the soaring song was as powerful and devastating as it was in 1987 on the beyond-iconic Appetite for Destruction. Never more so than when Axl brought it full circle, singing the infamous refrain, “Do you know where you are? You’re in the Troubadour baby! You’re gonna diiiiiiiiiiie.”
In the songs that followed, Axl would occasionally depart the stage for a wardrobe change, and maybe to cede the spotlight to Slash. But after “Double Talkin Jive,” GNR’s first performance of the song since 1993, Axl perhaps tellingly thanked the audience: “Glad you could stop by to see me.”
“Live and Let Die” was one of five covers (Wings, Andy Williams, The Damned, Bob Dylan and The Who) played out of seventeen total songs. Allowing an opportunity for Rose to air out his trademark shriek, the Wings number’s lyrics rang particularly true. “What does it matter to ya / When you got a job to do / You gotta do it well / You gotta give the other fellow hell.” Amidst the yeoman’s work of the band, the song spoke volumes about Guns N’ Roses rise from the ashes.
“Rocket Queen” started with a Slash distorted vocal intro. Later, it saw guitarist Richard Fortus fall to his knees and lock eyes with an audience member. The flash of white hot strobe lights, though primitive by today’s standards, created visual snapshots reminiscent of 1980s analog glory. By the end of the song, Axl and Slash stood side by side, elevated at the front of the stage. It was a moment that felt democratic, and one that later gave away to an outright endorsement by Axl when he introduced Slash by saying, “The man who needs no introduction, but will get one anyways…”
The Spanish-sounding “Speak Softly, Love” from “The Godfather” bled in to one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in modern music: Slash’s intro to “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” The song included Axl executing his very own shuffle dance, ushering himself effortlessly from stage right to left. Like much of the night, the die-hard heavy crowd sang with reckless abandon, backing their beloved band. Slash, his guitar perpendicular to the floor, then took center stage to absolutely shred the song’s final section.
After Dylan’s “Knockin on Heaven’s Door,” Axl candidly engaged the audience once again, testifying, “See? I’m agreeable. I am an agreeable person,” perhaps revealing another glimpse in to his own (and perhaps our own?) mind as he embarks on a precarious, large-scale tour with his long lost band. Almost 90 minutes in to the show, “Nightrain” crushed as a set closer. A prototypical Guns anthem, it evoked another welcome burst of nostalgia.
Following a rendition of The Who’s “The Seeker” to start the encore, the show ended appropriately with “Paradise City.” Similar to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” the song has become an undeniable piece of nearly all music lovers’ DNA. Like the entire experience, it is damn near impossible to translate in print the emotional weight with which such a song was delivered.
Many in the audience will in all likelihood never love a band like they do Guns N’ Roses. Their songs represent a time and an attitude past that cannot be replicated. To see the core of the band reunited on the precipice of their reemergence, in a city and venue from whence they came, at an event where omnipresent cellphones were thoughtfully banned by organizers, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to revisit the simpler and dirtier bygone days of 1987.
Face it, we live in a time where globally recognized artists and their catalogues are often fractured and silo’d among various streaming services or brands. GNR’s reunion makes this all the more clear because they came of age when the sun was setting on a different model. One where a collection of songs, like them or not, became woven into the zeitgeist via the precious few channels that once existed: FM radio and MTV. Can there ever be another band, another far reaching force like Guns N’ Roses?
It’s So Easy
Welcome to the Jungle
Double Talkin Jive
Live and Let Die
You Could Be Mine
Speak Softly Love
Sweet Child O’ Mine
Knockin on Heaven’s Door