All photos by: Katarina Benzova
I can’t remember the year, though it was definitely mid-late 00s for sure, I caught “Guns N’ Roses” at Allstate Arena (I can’t even remember if Chinese Democracy, the album that Axl Rose had labored on for years on end, had been released at this point or not). I put the band name in quotes because, at the time, it was only Rose and a group of talented hired hands (including one of my favorite interviews ever, Tommy Stinson, on bass). The Guns N’ Roses that managed to bust through the hair metal scene in the 80s with so much raw energy and reckless abandon, was, at that point, a rather by the numbers, disappointing venture. Yes, the band played well, but they had absolutely no hand in writing or recording the material they played, so the passion was nowhere to be found. As for Rose? His voice was beyond shot at this point. His stage presence was, based on my memory, routine and uninspired.
Rose famously edged out all original members of the band one way or another. Original drummer Steven Adler, whose talents at the time were great, was too fucked up even for this band of drug addicts and alcoholics and was replaced by Matt Sorum, a powerhouse behind the kit, but a bit slicker…perfect for the albums he debuted on, Use Your Illusion 1 & 2. Izzy Stradlin, the other main songwriter in the band besides Rose, as well as being, essentially, the Keith Richards of the band (sharing vocal duties with Rose here and there), split before those albums were released and was replaced by Gilby Clarke, a capable guitarist to be sure, but another sign that the band was indeed changing. Fans were cool with it though…there was still Rose singing, Duff McKagan slinging those incredible bass lines and one of the last true rock guitar Gods of our time, Slash.
From there their history is famous. The band goes on incredibly late time and time again because of Rose’s personality issues, creating more tension within the circle, especially between Slash and Rose. Rose eventually takes command of the entire band, buying the original members out of their rights to the band name, etc, etc. All that happens and McKagan, Clarke, Sorum and Slash exit over time, leaving Rose to toil endlessly on Democracy, the results of which, were met with near indifference when it was finally released November 23, 2008. In between Slash, McKagan, Sorum, along with Scott Weiland and Dave Kushner form Velvet Revolver, delivering some enjoyable tunes in their short time.
Rumors swirled in the 7 plus years since that album came out that perhaps the original band (well maybe all but Adler) would get back together and tour. There certainly was a lot of money in it for the members if they could patch up old wounds. But when they couldn’t get Rose to even perform a few songs with the original crew for the band’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (Rose insisted that the version of the band at that time was the one that should play), the last remaining hope of a reunion seemed undeniably dead.
Then this year something happened. A big announcement that Rose, McKagan and Slash would again share the stage together (with longtime band keyboardist Dizzy Reed, guitarist Richard Fortus, Frank Ferrer on drums and Melissa Reese on keyboards) for the “Not In This Lifetime Tour.” Hell, apparently, had frozen over.
So why this preamble? Why go over the sordid, troubled history of one of rock music’s biggest and best bands before talking about their recent Chicago show? Three words: I’m a fan. I followed these guys so religiously back in the day (they’re in rarefied air, I’ve only given such devotion to Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, the Rolling Stones, The Band and The Beatles) that it hurt to see such greatness go up in flames before my eyes. I was a “Nice Boy” even though I did play rock ‘n roll (drummer) and I had never been into a band this intense or rebellious before. But something about the songs on Appetite for Destruction got to me – though I was a teenager when it came out, so perhaps it does make sense. The music was angry, defiant, in no way politically correct (boy did these guys stir up some controversy) and loud. They were misogynistic for sure. Rose was potentially homophobic and racist (“One In a Million” will forever be bounced around in the “is it art or is it hate?” debate) as well. He was definitely fucking nuts and a loose cannon. What was bad about them was great to me. When music had become safe and boring, here these guys were representing the best of the Stones’ swagger, the loud chops of metal and the “don’t give a fuck” attitude of punk rock. They were the perfect rock band. If they could have figured out how to keep it together perhaps they’d have a catalog to equal the giants of rock (Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who), but three original albums, one EP featuring live and acoustic songs, a covers album and…well, whatever the hell Chinese Democracy is and it’s an oddly spotty history for a great rock band. Dear God I’m sorry…I’m not trying to knock these guys…any of them, quite frankly. I love these guys. I wish there was a way for the original five to be back together I love them so much.
So…Chicago. This would be the third time I had seen the band named Guns N’ Roses perform. Well technically the second. Or the first? Back in 1988 when all five original members opened for Aerosmith in Tinley Park and I was stuck in the parking lot and missed their entire set, but heard a fair amount of it. Then there’s the Allstate Arena show. Now Soldier Field.
My seats were amazing. So big props to PR for that. Thank you. Alice In Chains opened and they were a lot of fun. It’s amazing how much singer William DuVall sounds like the late Layne Staley at times, he is a fantastic frontman and I’d go see them live again in a heartbeat after seeing them here.
Then, as they have been doing the entire tour thus far, Guns ‘n Roses came out at 9:15…a full 15 minutes earlier than they were scheduled to. Yes, that is a HUGE thing to state, especially considering, from my memory, the Allstate Arena show didn’t start until well past midnight.
The band were on fire from the get go. “It’s So Easy” and “Mr. Brownstone,” the show openers, were amazing to witness and the band, still pretty new to all performing together, were powerful and tight as hell. And Rose’s voice was in great shape, especially at the beginning (more on that in a bit). Then it was one amazing, rocking tune after another (eight songs total from Appetite for Destruction, including a fantastic rendition of “Rocket Queen”)
Glee was written all over my face. I was enthralled, enraptured and excited. The light, set and video design were at another level and helped to create a spellbinding show. But, no matter what, the music was what mattered the most and this band, playing these songs (even the Chinese Democracy tunes sounded better with Slash and McKagan playing them) helped make this concert experience among my absolute favorites of all time.
I don’t think there’s a more impressive, more natural guitarist playing rock music (which almost no one plays anymore…I mean, real rock music) than Slash. It was a pleasure getting to see and hear him play.
McKagan is one of those guys I really underestimated back in the day, but he’s proven me wrong for doing so over the years. His bass style is so distinct and cool. His whole vibe is cool. How does he still look like a punk rock kid at 52? It’s crazy.
And then there’s Rose. Fans have been hard on Rose for a long time. I won’t say without good reason, but maybe some have gone too far over the years. Regardless, now is the time to give the guy a chance. His voice was amazing for the first half of the show and held out pretty well for the rest (unless there were mic issues, but it seemed like he was getting winded as the night progressed past two hours). It doesn’t matter if his voice can’t do everything it once did in my mind. What matters to me is that this guy was out there giving it his all. Sure, the constant wardrobe changes were a bit odd, but he was fresh faced, happy and excited to perform from what I could tell. He gave it like he meant it and that, to me, deserves a huge applause. It was great seeing him up there, running around, caterwauling and snake-hip dancing here and there. It was good to have Axl back.
This is just the start of the tour, but I truly hope all continues to go well and that they keep going out and playing shows. Maybe they’ll even record together again. I’d love to see Izzy back in the fold, quite frankly (where the hell is that guy, anyway?). I’d like this to last and to grow and to get bigger and even better. You can’t turn back time, but you can heal and begin something new. That’s what I hope is happening here with these guys. The world needs Guns ‘n Roses. I for sure needed Guns N’ Roses this past Sunday night. I will never forget the euphoric feelings I experienced watching this show.
Guns ‘n Roses – Chicago – Soldier Field – July 3, 2016 set list:
It’s So Easy
Welcome to the Jungle
Double Talkin’ Jive
Live and Let Die (Wings cover)
You Could Be Mine
Raw Power (Iggy and The Stooges cover)
This I Love
Band intros into Slash solo – Speak Softly Love (Love Theme From The Godfather/Andy Williams)
Sweet Child O’ Mine
Out Ta Get Me
Jam (including “Wish You Were Here” – Pink Floyd cover)
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan cover)
The Seeker (The Who cover)