Guns N’ Roses Are The Greatest Live Arena Rock Band On The Planet

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Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

Four! F*cking! Hours! That’s just about how long Guns N’ Roses remained onstage during their thunderous, brain-liquefying show at the United Center in Chicago on Monday night. Workday commitments be damned. Everyone in the packed arena knew where we were. We were in the jungle baby with one of the wildest, most self-indulgent and stupefyingly powerful rock bands of the 20th century. It was over when they said it was over!

A little over 18 months earlier, Guns N’ Roses shocked the world when the reunited unit, featuring original members Slash, Axl Rose and Duff McKagan, performed their first live gig together in over two decades at the tiny Troubadour club in their old stomping grounds in Hollywood. Rose actually broke his foot during that gig, which almost sidelined what was envisioned as a triumphant return before it could even start. Thanks to an assist from Dave Grohl, however, the band hit the stage a short while later Coachella with Axl wailing away on a metal throne, officially kicking off one of the most anticipated reunion runs of all-time.

All throughout 2016, the newly minted Guns hit massive outdoor stadiums across the world, playing to 50, 60, and 70,000-seat packed houses of slack-jawed fans who could hardly believe what they were seeing. I caught the show at Soldier Field and was just as dumbstruck as everyone else to watch Axl racing across the stage, getting right up next to Slash as he let loose with another incendiary guitar solo. I’m a pretty optimistic guy, but after the band couldn’t pull it together for their Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction a few years earlier, I firmly believed my chances of ever getting to witness this brotherly display were snuffed out forever. I might as well have been watching a pair of unicorns playing water polo.

Reunion tours are high-wire acts. Big egos and years-long grievances have been known to scuttle more than a few revivals in recent years, and Guns N’ Roses is a band with filled with some of the biggest, most easily-bruised egos in rock. It’s absolutely incredible that Axl and Slash, in particular, were able to let bygones be bygones and share the stage once again. It’s an outright miracle that they’ve managed to keep it going.

Amazing, not only has Guns survived through the last year, they’ve actually gotten way, way better. That show at Soldier Field was enhanced by an unmistakable sense of novelty, a bit of whimsy, and a whole lotta nostalgia. They weren’t quite the same ferocious, riot-inciting entity they had been back in ’92, but the tradeoffs were welcome. They hit the stage almost exactly on time, for instance.

Cut to the performance in the more intimate confines at the United Center and the impact of a year spent on the road together was obvious. For one, Axl looked far more svelte and abandoned the stage to catch his breath far less frequently than he had before. His voice was way stronger as a result. Though he seemed far more comfortable singing in a mid-range frequency — then again, who wouldn’t? — he hit the razor-wire-wrapped high notes in songs like “Welcome To The Jungle” and “Paradise City” with relative ease.

Axl has also certainly lost nothing of his flair for showmanship. I don’t know how many times he violently tossed his mic stand across the stage, or did his signature cyclone spin, but I know for a fact that there had to have been at least six different hat changes throughout the evening. Special shoutout to the cowboy hat he busted out for “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” He also kicked off the show wearing one snakeskin boot and one sneaker, though I couldn’t tell if that was a fashion statement or just a case of having to get out in front of the crowd on time.

The rest of the band was absolutely on fire as well. “Young” Duff McKagan made the most of his moment in the spotlight to sing the Damned’s “New Rose,” just after an ass-kicking rendition of the Terminator 2 track “You Could Be Mine.” Frank Ferrer did a bang-up job on drums in his role as Steven Adler/Matt Sorum’s stand-in. Izzy Stradlin was certainly missed on rhythm guitar, but Richard Fortus handled his duties capably. And then there was Slash.

Check out almost any list of the greatest guitarists of all-time, and chances are you’ll see the self-styled “Cat in the Hat” high up in the pecking order. That’s for a very good reason. Though Axl is the obvious and undisputed focal point of Guns N’ Roses, it’s left to Slash to carry the show. In the moments when the singer is backstage doing…whatever the hell he’s doing, the spotlight shifts to Slash who captures the crowd’s attention and holds onto it with an ease and coolness that are plainly superhuman.

His legend proceeds him, and yet he burnishes it song after song with one ridiculous, warp-speed instrumental break after another. That’s especially true during the middle portion of the show when everyone else abandons the stage, leaving him all by his lonesome, crying out the mournful melodies of the theme to The Godfather. When he eventually morphs the final notes of that track into the opening ones of the band’s immortal ballad “Sweet Child O’ Mine” you’d think the building just exploded.

Obviously, the air hung heavy with nostalgia, but more than anything a Guns N’ Roses shows these days feel like a glorious celebration of rock itself. It has all the intensity and breadth of a Foo Fighters gig, but with way, way better songs, and more compelling figures onstage to bring them to life. Outside of classic cuts like “Nightrain,” “Patience,” “My Michele,” “Civil War” and the show-opener “It’s So Easy,” Guns also tosses out a few immortal rock covers like a guitar-only rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” Paul McCartney’s bombastic “Live And Let Die,” The Who’s “The Seeker,” and most touchingly of all, Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” which entered the set shortly after the death earlier this year of Chris Cornell.

I’d also like to add to all for the detractors and skeptics out there crying “cash-in,” you don’t spend four hours in front of a crowd for a paycheck. You don’t stuff your encore with six different songs for a paycheck. You don’t expend the kind of sweat or physical energy required to put on a show of this caliber for a paycheck. Guns N’ Roses could more than easily play a majority of the songs off Appetite For Destruction, a few Use Your Illusion tracks, give Slash a few minutes to bust out his take on the theme from The Godfather, and call it a night after an hour and a half — and sell just as many tickets as they would otherwise. Maybe I’m being too sentimental, but as I watched Slash do a full-on handstand after showering the front row in guitar picks at the end of the show, I couldn’t help but feel like these guys really do live for this sh*t.

In the short span of 18 months, Guns N’ Roses has transformed from an eye-popping novelty to lay a legitimate claim on the title “Greatest Arena Rock Band On The Planet.” U2 still holds the belt in the stadium world, but no one this side of Bruce Springsteen plays with more intensity, with more passion or for longer stretches than Axl, Slash, Duff et al. Now, if we could just add some new material into the mix…

“It’s So Easy”
“Mr. Brownstone”
“Chinese Democracy”
“Welcome To The Jungle”
“Double Talkin’ Jive”
“Live And Let Die”
“Rocket Queen”
“You Could Be Mine”
“New Rose”
“This I Love”
“There Was A Time”
“Civil War”
“Speak Softly Love (Love Theme From The Godfather)”
“Sweet Child O’ Mine”
“Wichita Lineman”
“Used To Love Her”
“My Michelle”
“Wish You Were Here”
“November Rain”
“Black Hole Sun”
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”
“Don’t Cry”
“The Seeker”
“Paradise City”

Bootleg Bin

Just as a reminder of how far Guns N’ Roses has come, it’s worth remember that 15 years ago, nearly to the day of their show in Chicago earlier this week, on November 7, 2002 the Axl-only version of the band sparked a riot by no-showing the first show of their tour in that year in Vancouver, Canada. Apparently, some flight delays had hindered the singer’s arrival and rather than push back the start time, the folks who managed the General Motors Place arena decided to pull the plug on the gig.

Outside, enraged fans took to the streets and clashed with the cops. “Groups of ticked-off kids converged at the gates of GM Place, fueled, in some cases, by strong drink and marijuana,” Kurt Loder reported on MTV. “Wielding their riot batons with seeming abandon, the cops walloped legs, arms, heads, whatever available extremity presented itself. They ganged up to pummel people even after they’d fallen to the ground. One young man was smashed in the face and his teeth knocked out. He stumbled away in a daze, holding them in his hands, with blood pouring from his mouth.”

When he returned to Vancouver in 2011, Axl took a moment to say sorry for sparking the mayhem. “I want to apologize with you,” he said. “If I knew that you motherf*ckers would tear the place down, I would have got here quicker!”