Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Welcome Back to the Jungle (Repeatedly): Guns N' Roses Thunderously Reunite with Their Former Glories -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Guns N' Roses
w/ opening act Alice in Chains
Soldier Field, Chicago
July 1 & 3, 2016

How good were Guns N' Roses Friday night at Soldier Field, 23 years since any of the original members beyond Axl Rose toured with the band?

So good, despite horrible stadium acoustics that resulted in a terribly distracting echo effect where I was sitting--section 326--that I bought myself a ticket to go again on Sunday.

And to sit in roughly the same area (section 324).

Mind you, due to a woefully undersold second show, I bought Sunday's ticket for just $10 + 250% that in Ticketmaster fees, but still about a third of what I paid for Friday's sold out concert.

Then, on the way into the stadium following a delightful, photographic walk along the Lake Michigan shore, a couple of complete strangers handed me a ticket, without wanting mine or anything else in return.

It was in section 114, in the lower bowl and a good bit closer to the stage. And from the first note of opening act Alice in Chains, the sound was markedly better.

Being able to hear the songs more loudly, cleanly and clearly certainly added to the visceral impact of Sunday’s show, but despite the acoustical challenges posed by my vantage point, I would still award Guns N’ Roses’ Friday night performance @@@@@ as well.

And as I attended the first show with a friend, allowing for some (almost) syncopated air guitaring, drumming and screaming along in unison to such profundity as "If you got the money honey we got your disease," my enjoyment was pretty well balanced between the two shows.

I sensed that Axl Rose was a bit looser on Sunday, and perhaps his voice was as well, but with only one slight setlist change—bassist Duff McKagan took a lead turn on a cover of The Damned’s “New Rose” on Friday (I know the song but didn’t recognize it) but did The Stooges’ “Raw Power” in its stead Sunday—my highly positive review will essentially cover both shows without much overt delineation between the two.

Each night, Alice in Chains came onstage exactly at the 8pm ticketed time, and played 9 songs across approximately 45 minutes.

I had never seen and only somewhat cared about the Seattle band during their 1990s run—as my friend Brad said, “It’s hard being the 4th grunge band”—and even less so after original lead singer Layne Staley died in 2002 after battling drug addiction.

But founding guitarist Jerry Cantrell, who wrote many of the songs and provided the band's trademark harmonies with Staley, remains active, and with new singer William DuVall the sound pretty closely replicates the past.

So it was fun to hear a few classic songs--"Rooster," "Man in the Box," "No Excuses" and "Would?"--while "Check My Brain" from 2009's Black Gives Way to Blue showed that even without Staley, their best material can still largely sound the same, for better or worse.

Sunday's show was Alice in Chains' last in its run with Guns N' Roses, and Cantrell was openly appreciative of the crowd and the headlining band.

Now, what Guns N' Roses played, over the course of a generous 2-1/2 hours each night--mostly greatest hits sets; Friday's setlist, Sunday's setlist--is likely a bit more obvious than how well they sounded.

Axl Rose is now 54 years old, and as quite derided on the internet, a good deal paunchier than in his slithering heyday.

In keeping the Guns N' Roses brand name going with a bunch of other musicians, without speaking to Slash or other original members--though I admittedly attended an ersatz GNR show in 2002 and didn't hate it--and due to some domestic allegations over the years, he always seemed like a jerk. Perhaps even an asshole.

And while Slash and McKagan are part of this reunion outing of football stadiums, for reasons unknown original guitarist Izzy Stradlin and drummer Steven Adler (or his replacement back in the day, Matt Sorum) aren't along for the ride.

As far as I know, there's been no hint that since Axl and Slash reconciled, any new material is in the works, so those dubious folks imagining a cash-grabbing, perhaps less-than-stellar tour couldn't have been called crazy.

But with the caveat that I never saw Guns N' Roses back in the early '90s--in part because they were notorious for not taking the stage until after 11pm (due I believe to Axl's disposition) and for occasionally inciting riots--the show Friday, and because of it, Sunday, were really far better than I had hoped or expected.

...even with quite a bit of anticipatory excitement due to my fondness for their best material.

IMO, the band really only had two great albums: their stunning 1987 debut, Appetite for Destruction--on which every song is terrific--and one that doesn't exist, as I think Use Your Illusion I and II should have been culled into one fantastic album (with some leftover B-sides) rather than two up-and-down discs.

Guns N' Roses always showed a fondness for cover versions--"Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Live and Let Die," both presently performed--and Axl's latter-day GNR (from which guitarist Richard Fortus, drummer Frank Ferrer and longtime band keyboardist Dizzy Reed are in the current tour lineup, along with additional keyboardist Melissa Reese) released Chinese Democracy in 2008 after a long gestation period.

Hence, while the current setlist included three songs from the latter album--the best being the title song--and a few other covers (The Who's "The Seeker" came off well), for the most part it combined thunderous rockers off Appetite for Destruction with epics from Use Your Illusion.

And especially in regards to GNR's own classic material, everything sounded great.

Almost spiritually so.

Axl's voice isn't quite what it once was, and he did take numerous offstage breaks to change t-shirts and jackets, but he genuinely impressed, whether on the punchy "It's So Easy," "Welcome to the Jungle," "You Could Be Mine," "Out Ta Get Me," etc. or the lengthy "Estranged," "Rocket Queen," "Civil War," "Coma" and "November Rain."

On both nights, his singing on "Civil War" particularly demonstrated his vocals can still be rather formidable. (See video below.)

I should also note my happiness with Guns N' Roses taking the stage at 9:15 each night--just a half-hour after Alice in Chains ended--and demonstrating no obvious bullshit in their act.

And Slash--adorned on Friday in a David Bowie shirt, while Duff paid tribute to Prince with "The Symbol" on his bass--was just phenomenal.

He didn't interact much with Axl, and was often nearly on the opposite sideline, but his classic riffs and sublime soloing were spot on.

Though his guitar duet with Fortus on Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" was the least essential part of the shows, his solo take on "The Godfather Theme" leading into "Sweet Child o' Mine" was truly transcendent.

I've loved Slash in the past, whether in a terrific Velvet Revolver show or one of his own concerts with singer Myles Kennedy, and he strikes me as a guy--kind of like Keith Richards or Tony Iommi--who isn't going to take part in something lackluster.

Out of 2-1/2 hours each night, pretty much a full 2 hours were impeccable, and none of the rest
dreadful or unforgivable.

One can say, or think, whatever they want about the motivations for this tour, and I wouldn't quibble.

But some truly wonderful rock n' roll songs of my--and Axl, Slash and Duff's--youth were played about as well as I might have wanted, so both in terms of nostalgia and the here n' now, I found Guns N' Roses to be pretty stupendously sensational.

Believe it or not.

A video of "Civil War" from Friday, July 1 at Soldier Field; posted to YouTube by Mr. Street of Dreams:

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