Thirty years ago, when five up-to-no-good Sunset Strip street urchins unleashed Appetite for Destruction on an unsuspecting public, no one knew quite what to expect. At the time, the members of Guns N’ Roses were battling drug addiction, intraband (read: Axl-related) strife, a wary record label, and a reputation as the baddest band in the Los Angeles hair metal scene (never mind that Guns were more Pistols punk than Mötley Crüe metal.) Appetite, released on July 21, 1987, would go on to sell more copies than any debut in music history…and the band would never again reach such lofty heights. But last night, over the course of three hours and more than two dozen songs, a reunited Guns N’ Roses proved that the “most dangerous band in the world” may be older, wiser, and more sober — but if you’ve got the money, honey, they can still bring you to your knees.
For the 1,500-odd SiriusXM subscribers and lucky VIPs at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, whether or not Axl would even show — let alone show up on time — for this invitation-only performance was the first mystery of the night. Luckily, the years-long rift between Slash and Rose seemed to have healed sufficiently for the singer to make the gig’s 10:30 p.m. start time, though fans expecting original Gunners Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler were left disappointed; longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed, along with “new-school members” drummer Frank Ferrer, guitarist Richard Fortus, and additional keyboard player Melissa Reese, filled out the lineup at the Apollo.
Slash, as is his wont, kept his sunglasses and iconic top hat on the entire evening, while Rose, in perfect voice and numerous hats, was at once studied and passionate, his slithery stage moves recalling the more lithe Axl of the band’s club days. Both are at the top of their game. Even on vocally demanding songs — and there are many — Rose’s voice never faltered, his energy and focus never flagged. Instrumental breaks and bassist Duff McKagan’s lead vocals on the Damned song “New Rose” (the Seattle-born bassist has strong punk bona fides) did allow the energetic frontman some offstage breaks, and, of course, the Apollo stage is about a fifth the size of the stadium stages the band is used to. Still, sweat dripped liberally off Guns’ numerous tattoos by the end of the night.
The stellar set kicked off with a pair of early classics, the incendiary “It’s So Easy” and the ode to heroin “Mr. Brownstone.” The set, of a length and breadth akin to Guns’ recent stadium shows, boasted many highlights and few lowlights. The grand piano–based ballad “November Rain” was written in time for Appetite, but the rumor is that it didn’t fit with Appetite’s take-no-prisoners mien. The percussive groove of “Rocket Queen,” the darkly insinuating “Coma,” and the screeching powerhouse that is “Nightrain,” along with the true tale of Slash’s high school friend, “My Michelle,” were standouts among a small amount of newer material, including the title track to Chinese Democracy, the long-time-coming G N’ R album made by Axl and numerous other musicians not named Izzy, Duff, or Slash.
If Guns’ Apollo concert was a triumph, it was nonetheless a sad day for music — news broke earlier in the day that Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington had taken his own life, on the birthday of his late friend Chris Cornell. Axl, the only member who spoke from the stage, made no reference to Bennington’s death, though the band delivered a beautiful cover of Soundgarden’s soaring “Black Hole Sun.” Knowing the history of Guns’ back-in-the-day substance use, it sometimes seems a miracle to see the Three Musketeers onstage, looking healthy and even — at times — happy. Both Rose and McKagan cracked a few smiles. Not so the inscrutable Slash.
A spate of other covers was enjoyable, if unnecessary. “Whole Lotta Rosie,” a gem from Rose’s “other” band, AC/DC, was spot-on; ditto the epic, multilayered Paul McCartney and Wings staple “Live and Let Die” and the rousing power balladry of the Who’s “The Seeker.” An instrumental version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” sparked an audience sing-along, and while Slash teased Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed,” the band instead went into Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” An instrumental version of Clapton’s “Layla,” with Rose on piano, was rather uninspiring. Instead of a half-dozen covers, the audience certainly wouldn’t have minded more Guns’ originals, say, “The Garden,” “14 Years,” or “Garden of Eden.”
G N’ R return to New York later this year, to a venue more suited to their popularity: They’ll play two October dates at Madison Square Garden, as part of their Not in This Lifetime tour. But last night was a more intimate affair. Closing with the epic arena rocker “Paradise City,” the band seemed to be sketching its entire narrative arc: “Rags to riches or so they say/Ya gotta keep pushin’ for the fortune and fame.” Thirty years ago, G N’ R went from rags to riches, and — as they reunite for a no-doubt immensely remunerative tour — fortune and fame are what’s left.