Fewer band-break-ups had broken more hearts around the world than Guns N’ Roses’ infamous split back in 1996. It wasn’t surprising when it happened. There was no denying that back in the day, they were the most combustible band in the world – a boiling concoction of rag-tag junkies, contraband substances, and one massive ego, barely held together by a brand of music that was almost as lethal and explosive as they were themselves.
The split was therefore completely understandable. The fact that Axl Rose and Slash, arguably the most iconic on-stage pairing of the time would never be seen on the same stage again, caused many a tear to be shed. The story of Gn’R became this almost poetic narrative of the life of a rock n roll band that had risen from anonymity, exploded on to the global stage as an almost overnight success, and then imploded as spectacularly within a very short span of time. Of course, the name Gn’R would continue to live on, and Axl would continue to perform with his new band members till as late as 2011 – but for all practical purposes, the real Guns N’ Roses – would be history. Given the bitterness of the split, and the rancor that existed between Axl and the rest, a reunion seemed impossible.
Fast forward 2015. Rumours of an improbable reunion of the classic Guns N’ Roses had begun doing the rounds on social media. Towards the end of 2015, the official Guns N’ Roses website verified the rumours, and teased a historic “Not in a lifetime tour”. The entire classic line-up wouldn’t be involved: but Axl and Slash would be. What more, they’d be joined by the original bassist, Duff McKagan, and keyboardist Dizzy Reed (who had stuck by Axl for the entire duration of the split). If everything went according to plan, this would possibly be the greatest, most historic reunion in music history ever. An LA based marketing expert even predicted, “… the band only need to do a year on the road and would never have to worry about money again in their lives.”
Thus when the tour did get underway, it was fitting that Top Five Records would be there to attend one of the concerts. Thus, on a warmish summer evening in New Jersey, I found myself perched atop a seat in the massive MetLife Stadium – a stadium of a size that truly reflected the immensity of the act that was about to unfold.
The opening artist of the night, Lenny Kravitz got the music underway with his brand of R&B and soul, and played out an entertaining one hour set. But it wasn’t going to be until late in the night that the crowd would get a glimpse of those who they had really come to see. It started out with a recorded version of the Looney Tunes theme (that has become a staple in this tour), and then yet another recorded track – Harry Gregson-Williams’ The Equalizer, which eventually transitioned into the first song on their set-list – It’s So Easy – as the crew exploded on the stage in a dramatic manner. The collective cheer that erupted around the stadium was quite unlike any audience I had heard in my life. These were people – almost rabid fans – who had waited for two decades to see one of the most iconic groups perform live, and here they were being treated to just that.
The set list that followed would have left no fan unsatisfied. In all fairness, their discography isn’t really massive – just the four “classic” albums – that had catapulted them up billboards around the world, and then a fifth in 2007. And the concert was thus, nothing short of a tour-de-force, that explored their entire oeuvre right from their legendary debut Appetite For Destruction, through the epic double Use Your Illusion, a smattering of covers, and some select numbers from Chinese Democracy.
It’s So Easy was followed by one of their more groovier songs – Mr Brownstone. The title track from Chinese Democracy came next, and then they embarked on one of their biggest hits Welcome To The Jungle, the same song that had announced their arrival to the world back in 1987. The moment when Axl screamed “Do you know where the f*** you are? You’re in a jungle baby. Time to die!” will perhaps live on in my memory for the rest of my life. That, followed by Slash’s instantly recognizable riffs set the stage for what would be one of the greatest performances that evening. Axl dispelled all doubts about his vocal prowess that some fans might have harboured, given his age. His voice reached the same raspy zeniths as it did plummet the lowest of depths with great aplomb. Coupled with his electrifying on-stage presence it not just a memorable act, but one that also felt visceral. Slash, with his iconic Les Paul and his even more iconic swagger kept the riffs flowing effortlessly. Hit after hit followed – from the outrightly dirty Double Talkin’ Jive to the more mellow Live and Let Die and everything in between. They did all of their classics including Estranged, Civil War, Sweet Child O’ Mine (of course), and the author’s personal favourite, November Rain. November Rain saw Axl take his seat at the piano, and the recreation of what is arguably one of the greatest rock-ballads ever written left nothing to be desired. The emotion in Slash’s solos was palpable – one could almost taste it in the air. Of the various covers they did that evening, the guitar-only cover of Wish You Were Here stood out. For that, Slash was joined by Richard Fortus, and the pair constructed an absolutely ethereal guitar duet of the Pink Floyd classic. Other covers in the main setlist included the Love theme from the Godfather, and Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, which Axl urged the entire stadium to sing along with him to. Finally when they concluded with one of their all-time classics – Nighttrain – the 55000 strong audience wouldn’t be silent – just yet. Thus, when the band returned on the stage for the encore, the applause that greeted them back, was absolutely deafening.
The encore consisted of one of their most soulful, acoustic, and soft numbers – Patience, which got the whole crowd singing along. This was followed by a very entertaining cover of The Seeker, and for the final act of the day the band put together a rendition of one of their most loved hits – and an absolute classic of the “stadium rock” genre – Paradise City. The anthemic chorus got the crowd worked up in a frenzy, and Slash’s dizzyingly fast riffs enraptured the fans. Coupled with a spectacular show of fireworks, Paradise City left many indelible marks on thousands of minds that night. It was well past midnight when we made our way out of the stadium, but the memories that we had gathered that night weren’t ones that would fade away any time soon.
In the history of music in general, and rock in particular, there appear these flashes – flashes that hold great promise, but then fade away. Guns N’ Roses is one such flash. One can only imagine the contribution they could have made to music had they not had broken up, had they not gone on a 20 year hiatus from making great music together.
But then again, it is the very nature of being a flash, that makes flashes, so very special. Their fleeting nature is much like that of a shooting star in the sky, that you enjoy only while it lasts, and then feel lucky to have caught a glimpse of while it lasted.
In the case of Guns N’ Roses, the shooting star decided to make a comeback, and what a phenomenal comeback it was.
Photos and text by Subhayan Mukerjee. Follow him on Twitter @wrahool.