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Guns N’ Roses rock Vegas … with a loan from Dave Grohl

T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, opening night of Guns N' Roses' "Not In This Lifetime" tour (MPR Photo|Daniel Nass)

On July 21, 1987, Guns N’ Roses’ groundbreaking debut album, Appetite for Destruction, was released on Geffen Records. It went on to become the best-selling debut album in history, but sales really didn’t start picking up until the following year, thanks in part to regular airplay on MTV (back when it played music videos).

That’s when Appetite connected with me. I signed up for the Columbia House Record Club, wooed by its infamous “12 albums for 1 penny” schtick, and purchased a vinyl copy of the album. My friends and I would huddle around MTV, waiting to see memorable videos for songs like “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “Paradise City.” The “Paradise City” video particularly resonated with my 14-year-old self, with footage from outdoor GN’R shows in New Jersey and England. I forced the garage band I was in at the time out of the garage and on to the front lawn (much to the dismay of our neighbors) so I could play my Gibson Les Paul in the sun like Slash. I started growing my hair out, and even got myself a terrible, small-town Minnesota perm (yes, there are photos … no, you can’t see them).

When it was announced in January of this year that the original Guns N’ Roses lineup would reunite (3/5 of them, anyway) to perform together for the first time since 1993, I knew I had to find a way to see it. So on Friday, April 8, a friend and I boarded a plane to Las Vegas to see the first of two sold-out shows at Vegas’s brand-new T-Mobile Arena.

The band is calling it the “Not In This Lifetime” tour — an allusion to the Eagles’ “Hell Freezes Over” tour and a phrase once uttered by Axl Rose in response to questions about a GN’R reunion. And it was nearly over before it started. During a warmup show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles on April 1, Rose broke his foot, and revealed on Friday that he had surgery, tweeting “This is what can happen when you do something you haven’t done in nearly over 23 years.” The Vegas shows would go on as scheduled, but Rose — known for being an active performer, dancing and running all over the stage — would be performing in a cast, with very limited mobility.

The T-Mobile staff seemed unprepared and overwhelmed by the opening night crowd. Lines were long and slow at the merch tables, to concessions, to restrooms — just getting from outside the arena to inside the doors took more than an hour. But even as the rain fell on us, no one was grumbling. People were sharing stories of their first time seeing the band, one-upping each other with bits of obscure GN’R trivia. A number of fans had come decked out in GN’R vintage t-shirts and gear, from black top hats to red bandanas. There was even an amazing Guns N’ Roses ugly Christmas sweater.

Once inside, openers Alice in Chains tore through a brooding and impressive set of their hits (under just about any other circumstance, their performance would be considered far too brief, but this night was all about GN’R). The house lights then came up … and the waiting began. Fans waited 90 minutes for the headliners to hit the stage — a long wait, yes, but considering Rose and his reputation, it could have been so much worse. Finally, just after midnight, the lights went down, the theme from Looney Tunes began playing over the sound system, and silhouetted band members could be seen taking their places on the stage. At least, everyone but Axl Rose. Eventually, with the lights still down, we could see some commotion on the stage left side. There were flashlights and a stage crew of six to eight people began moving a giant, Spinal Tap-esque machine to center stage.

At that point, the band launched into “It’s So Easy,” aided by a Las Vegas-appropriate level of flash and bang. The stage lit up, and that machine turned out to be a giant throne, with Axl Rose perched on top of it like some sort of rock royalty. “You like my furniture?” he asked the crowd. The throne looked an awful lot like the throne designed and used by Dave Grohl after he fell off a stage in Sweden and broke his leg. This was confirmed during the encore when the road crew removed a panel, revealing a giant Foo Fighters logo (“That’s a good advertisement,” quipped Rose). Rose seemed to have a good attitude about his situation, joking about it throughout the evening and repeatedly thanking Grohl for the loan. Perhaps the two have moved on since the famous “Guns N’ Roses vs. Nirvana” clash at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.

After “It’s So Easy,” the band tore through “Mr. Brownstone” and “Chinese Democracy” (the one and only “uh-oh” moment in the evening occurred during “Mr. Brownstone,” when Rose inexplicably stopped singing for a verse). Rose’s voice sounded great, but those songs rested mostly in the lower part of his range, and I began to wonder if he still had the upper range he was famous for back in the 1980s and ’90s.

After the third song, Slash teased the crowd with one simple guitar gesture — a pulsing B, with an echo effect slapped on top of it — and the frenzied audience knew what was coming next. “You know where you are? You’re in the jungle, baby! You’re gonna diiiiiiieeeeee…” It was then that the show kicked into high gear; even the typically stoic, reactionless Slash began dancing and running across the stage.

And it was clear at that point that Rose had a strength and command of his voice usually reserved for someone 30 years younger. For the rest of the show, no one doubted his ability to reach the patented screams and wails he was known for in the early days of the group. This may have been aided by the fact that he had to stay in one place for the duration of the night (save for hobbling off on a crutch a number of times for wardrobe changes). You could often see that he wanted to get up and run (or at least perform his trademark snake-dance) across the stage.

Following “Rocket Queen,” Rose took time to introduce the band in its current configuration: including original members Slash and Duff McKagan, there was drummer Frank Ferrer, guitarist Richard Fortus, keyboardist/percussionist Dizzy Reed (those three from the Chinese Democracy-era lineup) and new keyboardist Melissa Reese. But in reality, this night was all about seeing Slash and Axl share a stage for the first time in over 20 years. After introducing everyone but his guitarist, the crowd seemed to be on edge waiting to hear how Axl would introduce someone he feuded with for years, someone he once called a “cancer” (Rose was even known for having fans thrown out who showed up to his shows wearing Slash t-shirts).

“I think you know this guy,” Rose said with a smile. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s pissed off, and it calls itself Slash.” The guitarist put on a clinic the entire night, rotating through a collection of beautiful Gibson Les Pauls and a black double-neck 1967 Gibson EDS-1275. It was clear he hadn’t lost a step either, shredding through extended guitar solos in “Rocket Queen,” “November Rain,” and what is probably his most recognizable, memorable solo, “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

By the time we reached the encore of the two-and-a-half-hour show, fans were bleary-eyed but far from satisfied. Along with six tracks from Appetite, there were tunes from 1991’s Use Your Illusion I and II (including Use Your Illusion I’s “Coma” — not heard live since 1993), and 2008’s Chinese Democracy (interesting to hear Slash and Duff play songs from that Slash-less and Duff-less album), along with some interesting covers.

After the final chords of “Nighttrain,” the band left the stage, and the “Guns N’ Roses” chants began. Two songs remained that the Vegas crowd wouldn’t allow the band to leave the arena until they were heard. Again, considering we were dealing with Axl Rose, I anticipated we were in for a long wait for the band to come back onstage. But apparently, pre-show rumors that the band had T-Mobile Arena until 2:30 a.m. were true, and it wasn’t long before they returned. McKagan and Fortus appeared first, strapped with acoustic guitars, hinting at what would be the first song of the encore.

After an initial C chord and that famous whistled melody, the crowd was mostly quiet during “Patience,” aside from the times they were singing their hearts out — Rose seemed taken aback by the volume of the crowd vocals by the time it got to the repeated line, “just a little patience, yeah …” Here Axl demonstrated once again that he was in better spirits then we are accustomed to, chuckling at his own joke as he changed the lyric “I sit here on the stairs” to “I sit here on this chair.” The final song of the night (no surprise here) was a ferocious version of “Paradise City,” complete with an impressive amount of pyro and confetti.

“Paradise City” encore, April 8, 2016 (MPR Photo|Daniel Nass)

Time will tell if Rose’s voice (and seemingly sunny disposition) will hold up for the duration a 21-city tour. But if this first show is any indication, I’m cautiously optimistic. As if the fact that Axl and Slash shared a stage wasn’t miraculous enough, the final bow included the two of them with their arms around each other (and not their hands around each other’s necks). Even as they exited the stage (Rose hobbling along on his crutches), it was notable that they were seen smiling, facing each other. Even with no idea what they might have been discussing at that moment, I call that a promising sign. And when the cast comes off, I’ll be seeing them again.

Next up for Guns N’ Roses will be their headlining show at Coachella on Saturday, April 16.

Setlist

“It’s So Easy”
“Mr. Brownstone”
“Chinese Democracy”
“Welcome to the Jungle”
“Double Talkin’ Jive”
“Estranged”
“Live and Let Die” (Paul McCartney and Wings cover)
“Rocket Queen”
“You Could Be Mine”
“New Rose” (The Damned cover)
“This I Love”
“Coma”
“Speak Softly, Love” (Andy Williams cover)
“Sweet Child O’ Mine”
“Better”
“Civil War”
“Wish You Were Here” (Pink Floyd cover)
“Layla (Piano Exit)” (Derek and the Dominos cover)
“November Rain”
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (Bob Dylan cover)
“Nightrain”

Encore
“Patience”
“Paradise City”