They came on a few minutes past midnight, an hour late, or really fuckin' early (depending on what you think of Axl Rose). For Use Your Illusion–era converts like me, who watched the band implode on MTV, this was a miracle, something that's “Not in This Lifetime,” which is the cheeky title for GNR's North American tour, an obvious riff on The Eagles' Hell Freezes Over.
There wasn't a single person at the Troubadour who wasn't pinching themselves into bruises, or wishing they were allowed to document this shit on their cellphone (GNR's management forced attendees to lock their phones in magnetic bags handed out by the venue).
There were about
250 500 in attendance, a packed house, including 50 “special guests” who peered down from the balcony of the Troubadour like aristocrats at the opera. Lenny Kravitz, Jim Carrey, Andrew Dice Clay and Nicolas Cage sat unmoved for 17 songs, as if they were witnessing a cosmic occurrence. There were also lots of beautiful women, the only attendees who were somehow allowed to keep cellphones to document the formerly “World's Most Dangerous Band,” now “The Only Band That Matters” — or if that's too Clash-y for you, how about: “The Biggest Band on the Planet,” which is undeniable at this point.
For GNR fans, this was their first exhale after 23 years of being suffocated by their seemingly doomed destiny as rock's most forgotten fan base. Since the band's meltdown between 1991 and 1997, we've had no closure. We couldn't even get a proper Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2012, when Axl bailed, then penned an open letter that confused fans even more. 2008's Chinese Democracy, which was brilliant in parts, came out nearly a decade ago and still requires a decoder to understand who plays what, and what Axl's intended vision was versus what the label ended up releasing.
We spent way too many years obsessively analyzing the reasons why Axl and Slash broke up; now, we can obsess over the mystery of why they finally reunited. And why Izzy Stradlin doesn't use the Internet. And whether Steven Adler can actually play “Civil War” now.
The GNR fanboy's neuroses were mostly cured on Friday, April Fool's Day, when the band gave their fans an adoring Valentine that massaged away all the pain: a reunion gig at the Troubadour, where Slash, Axl and Duff shared the stage together, again, confirming in the flesh for the first time that GNR is really, finally back together.
For weeks, rumors had been swirling around on the forums that GNR was playing a show at the Whisky on April Fool's Day as a “warm-up” for the tour. When Steven Adler's current band Adler canceled an April 1 show at the Whisky, GNR fans saw this as a sign that Steven was joining GNR. But that's not the case. A source close to the band told me that Adler is having back surgery, which is the real reason he pulled out of the Whisky show. I've also been told he's not ready to tour with GNR, not yet, and maybe not ever.
Some fans already knew the show was happening at the Troubadour on April 1, and actually leaked false reports that GNR would be playing the Hollywood Palladium to misdirect other fans. Then at around 8 p.m. on Thursday night, KLOS-FM began redirecting fans to the Sunset Strip based on its own sources. They leaked it, and from reports I was given, GNR's management was justifiably pissed off, as they had hoped to break the news themselves the next morning.
As KLOS reported, team GNR was at work inside the old Tower Records (now a Gibson showroom), which was being transformed into a makeshift GNR Rock Hall exhibit, a possible weeklong event leading into Coachella (this isn't confirmed), where the band's fans can tour a gloriously '80s-esque club in which everything from the classic GNR pinball machine to half-naked strippers seems to glow in the manufactured fog and red lights. The experience was something special for GNR fans, and everyone was invited inside (not just wristband holders).
By 4 a.m. Friday morning, about 100 people were waiting in line at the old Tower Records. By 9 a.m. there were more than 300 fans waiting to get tickets to the first GNR reunion show in 23 years. It would be at the Troubadour, where GNR played their first show on June 6, 1985, which the band's reps officially confirmed at 10 a.m.
Some of us waited for 11 hours to ensure we received wristbands to see GNR in what was a not-so-surprising-surprise show that had all the drama of a red carpet premiere and prize fight. I was told by a security guard that the first 180 people in line received a wristband. The rest, about 200 to 300 people, were out of luck.
History: The last time Slash and Axl shared a stage together was on July 17, 1993, at River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires.
Slash rushed out first, wearing skin-tight leather pants, his voodoo top hat over his curly mane, and a black sleeveless T-shirt that showed off his ripped arms. GNR opened with “It's So Easy,” while almost everyone was expecting “Welcome to the Jungle.” Slash played on four different guitars throughout the night (including a custom R guitar and various Gibson Les Pauls), which were handed to him by guitar tech Adam Day.
Slash was followed by Axl Rose, clean-shaven and much fitter than the last time I saw him, with shoulder-length ginger hair. He was wearing snakeskin boots, ripped designer jeans and a black leather jacket. He also had diamond-encrusted rings on his fingers, which held firmly a red microphone. Two shiny silver crosses hung from his neck like a swag-rap MC or Elvis. Axl's look seems to have found the balance between extravagance and punk.
Duff wore a black vest and looked as if he'd just been on a yoga retreat; his lean bicep muscles were just about bursting out of his skin as he moved his arm down the fretboard. Even his facial muscles looked like they were toned.
Another interesting look for the band was their first official female member (not simply a backup singer, like on the UYI tour). She is musician-model Melissa Reese, who wore glittery kicks and bounced around behind the keys like a raver (she also has greenish hair) while experimenting with various sound effects. Behind the kit was Frank Ferrer, who plays with hammering smoothness and a bit more feeling than Matt Sorum (who didn't make the cut for the current incarnation of GNR). He's also tighter than Adler, who probably still can't play “Civil War,” while Ferrer can play it all.
The set included songs from every GNR era, including the surreal experience of watching Slash play funkier versions of Buckethead and Robin Finck solos on “Chinese Democracy” and “Better.” Those songs showcased the undeniable fact that Axl Rose still has remarkable control of his falsetto and range, but on softer songs like “Sweet Child O' Mine,” he sounds like he's missing the sandpaper quality that made him such a wild animal on the microphone. Then again, when Axl's revved up and screaming, “You know where you are? … You gonna die!” he sounds as vicious as always.
Slash shredded on all his solos and seemed more serious than usual, rarely showing any emotion and just focusing on his guitar and the occasional acrobatic leap to the front of the stage. Often he was close enough to touch, or to feel his dangling guitar string whip your face. Axl, other than a point during “Paradise City,” the closer, was all smiles (he even threw his chrome whistle into the crowd). He looked reinvigorated, never out of breath, triumphant in his aviators, and constantly pushing his vocals to prove that he's still got what it takes to lead this band.
Back to the “Paradise City” moment. At one point during the song, the crowd was basically pushing themselves onto the stage when Axl said, forcefully, “Stop.” When the crowd obeyed, he said, “Thank you,” looked over to Duff and said, “Keep going.” Twenty-three years ago, he would have stopped the show. Axl looked angry, but, like the professional he's become, he managed to play on and lead his troops into battle.
“I'm the agreeable type,” he said, when discussing, jokingly, his flexibility on picking the set list— even though most people know Axl doesn't sing songs he doesn't feel like singing. But Axl is easier to work with these days. He's been in the studio with AC/DC in Atlanta, didn't show up late to the Troubadour, and added some self-deprecating humor to the night when he discussed his tendency to dictate the set list.
“I'm like Trump, I consult with myself,” he said.
Useless Fact: Axl went backstage six times during the set for various wardrobe changes, five in total, including changing into a white leather jacket with a GNR logo stitched on the back, and a red bandana for “You Could Be Mine,” which had fans bellowing in approval. It was as if the king had put on his crown.
Aside from losing his footing once during “Mr. Brownstone,” Axl looked ready for a major tour. On “Knockin' on Heaven's Door,” his lip quivered as he squeezed the soul out of his voice at the end; during “Sweet Child O' Mine,” when he sings, “Where do we go?” he spun around Slash in what looked like a marvelously planned ballet move. The serpentine dance was there, in small amounts, and on “Rocket Queen,” unquestionably the highlight of the night, his command on the stage, along with Slash's guitar, melted hearts — a girl in the front row was weeping, not teary-eyed, weeping during the coda (someone even held up a lighter, because cellphones were banned). On “Live and Let Die,” he looked up at Jim Carrey and winked at a group of girls next to him with such bravado that Carrey, by the end of the song, was staring at Axl as if he'd just seen the greatest performance of his life.
While Axl masterfully conducted the audience, Slash simply swung his ax around and ripped solo after solo, sometimes extending them beyond what Duff and Axl were expecting; the two would smile at each other as Slash torched his fretboard. Slash's moment came during The Godfather theme, when Axl left the stage, and the spotlight was on Slash. I wondered what Nicolas Cage, a Coppola, was feeling at that moment.
Side Note: I believe Michelle Young was in the crowd. Which made the playing of “My Michelle” a bit more legendary. I can also confirm that GNR insiders like Tom Zutaut, Marc Canter and Vicky Hamilton were not there.
For the encore — and this was embarrassing, L.A. — only a handful of fans were chanting “Guns N' Roses! Guns N' Roses!” And when GNR led the encore with The Who's “The Seeker,” everyone was expecting “Paradise City,” so for a moment, it got awkward.
It's interesting that none of the songs that were most polarizing among the band's members, like “November Rain” or “Estranged,” made the set list, and I can't recall Slash and Axl ever speaking directly to each other during the entire set. Then again, Slash was on some mental high-speed highway where he was going too fast to turn his head. The band sounded tight, as well, and I never detected a miscue or lyrical flub; Slash played some parts differently, but that's just a testament to his willingness to experiment. And no new songs, which had been rumored.
Walking back to my car, all I could think about was watching Axl standing at the center of the stage, his aviators showing a reflection of the crowd as it looked up into the lights, like he did at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1988, at the height of GNR's powers, as if he'd seen God. The only question is: How long will this new chapter last?
Update: The booker of the Troubadour reports that there were around 500 people at the show, not 250 as we originally reported. Also, during “Mr. Brownstone,” Axl Rose lost his footing and tumbled to the floor. We've received a report that Axl left the Troubadour immediately following the set and may have injured his foot. There's no update on the severity of his injury.
Guns N' Roses
Friday, April 1st 2016
1. “It's So Easy”
2. “Mr. Brownstone”
3. “Chinese Democracy”
4. “Welcome to the Jungle”
5. “Double Talkin' Jive”
6. “Live and Let Die” (Paul McCartney)
7. “Rocket Queen”
8. “You Could Be Mine”
9. The Godfather theme
10. “Sweet Child O' Mine”
11. “New Rose” (The Damned)
13. “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” (Bob Dylan)
14. “My Michelle”
16. “The Seeker” (The Who)
17. “Paradise City”
Vocals – Axl Rose
Lead Guitar – Slash
Bass – Duff McKagan
Rhythm Guitar – Richard Fortus
Drums – Frank Ferrer
Keys / Percussion – Dizzy Reed
Keys / Effects – Melissa Reese
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