Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review: Guns n' Roses in Atlanta

As Slash ripped into the opening notes of "Nightrain" - the last pre-encore song of Guns n' Roses' set in Atlanta Wednesday - I was struck by the realization that it was almost over. In just three more songs the show I'd waited to see since I was 12 years old (or a semblance of it) would be over. The anticipation was over and it might be the first and last time I'd see this configuration of the band with three out of five original members. At that moment the questionable sound and distance of a cavernous stadium show - things that would certainly come into play in a review - washed away.

Yet there's a glimmer of hope that "Not in This Lifetime" could be more than once in a lifetime. There was a moment earlier in the show as the crowd roared in response to Axl's sustained notes during "New Rose" when the famously difficult front man smiled knowingly and threw a sideways glance at guitarist Slash. For years fans were used to seeing angry Axl, but at that moment any sort of rock star facade melted away and genuine excitement and appreciation were evident. He may be almost 30 years older than when we met him, but there's still a hint of boyish joy in his eyes.

When I saw Rose's version of Guns at BiLo Center in Greenville, SC on Halloween 2011, the arena was largely empty. Maybe half full? (Yet they played a nearly four hours). The crowd Wednesday, exceeded 40,000. A count that had one Uber driver assessing it "bigger than Beyonce`."  Just wading through the masses on the way to our seats was daunting given that my date was my seven year old son who kept a death grip on my hand as we slowly maneuvered around snaking beer, merch, and food lines that extended into the walkways. My only other time at the Georgia Dome - Wrestlemania 2011 - seemed like a breeze in comparison.

The sheer number of people and booze poured made me nervous, but once at our seats the Gn'R crowd turned out to be amicable and friendly. No one spilled beer on my boy and I wasn't tempted to come to blows with any drunk, inconsiderate fools (as I was in Greenville). Instead we were bonded by an experience most of us assumed we'd never have.

The long walk through the crowd meant I missed all but opener the Cult's final song "Love Removal Machine." The sound was muddy under the concrete layer of seats that sheltered our lower level riser seats. That same less than pristine boominess was present during the opening "It's So Easy" and "Mr. Brownstone," although by the end of the fourth song - "Welcome to the Jungle" - the levels had improved. At its height, Axl's howl and Slash and Richard Fortus' guitars cut through everything else.

It didn't hurt that the crowd was singing along heartily. While I'd have preferred to have heard "Appetite for Destruction" in its entirety above anything else, the responses to covers (and longtime set staples) "Live and Let Die" and, much later in the set, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" were huge.

Although Axl may have garnered the bulk of headlines over the years, Slash and Duff were as much the stars and as he was. McKagan, who always brought a punk edge to the band, took the lead on a cover of the Stooges' "Raw Power." Slash repeatedly drew oohs and ahs with rippling guitar solos including a lovely rendition of "The Godfather theme" and a duet with Fortus of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here." Those segments gave Rose's voice time to recover (and for him to change his t-shirt and headgear every few songs). I once told him during an interview that the solo to "Sweet Child O' Mine" is the one my husband hears botched most often running sound for cover bands (he laughed), but his handling of it Wednesday was perfect.

That now 54 year old voice was in fine form scaling the rafters during songs like "New Rose," "Out Ta Get Me" and the encore "Paradise City." He had ample backup from McKagan, keyboardist Dizzy Reed, and additional keyboardist Melissa Reese, who added a female counterpoint to Axl's witchy yowl.

Although there was no sighting of original drummer Steven Adler, who joined the band on stage in Nashville and Cincinnati, drummer Frank Ferrer does a fine job.

As with the aforementioned covers, Gn'R paid tribute to its influences. McKagan wore a Motorhead t-shirt and a Prince sticker on his white bass and Slash threw in a few funky licks from Prince's "Kiss" during the extended portion of "Rocket Queen."

While Reed and Reese punctuated the set with keys, Rose kept his channeling of Liberace (those diamonds!) and Elton John limited to a lovely late show "November Rain."

Its core members may be in their fifties now, but with Rose's middle fingers, crotch grabs and naked breast t-shirts Guns n' Roses still isn't a band you'd want to take home to mom. At the merch booth my son requested a giant foam finger - a middle finger waving the bird - for instance. I had to explain that wasn't a nice gesture and no, he couldn't have one (he did hear songs I don't normally let him listen to like "It's So Easy" and "Out Ta Get Me").

It stuck to the set it's been playing since Coachella, although the overall show seemed fine-tuned since then. It helped that Rose is on his feet. The energy was palpable on songs like "You Could Be Mine" and the lengthy psych-goth-punk exercise "Coma." The sing-along "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" served as a climax with the encore of "Patience" (not one they do nightly) and pyro-laden "Paradise City" leaving fans covered in confetti.

While I'll always long for the original lineup recreating "Appetite," Guns is far from that gritty Sunset Strip band and that's OK because it's much, much better than nothing.