I saw something last night I thought I’d never see – Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan on the same stage together. It’s been a long time coming, but for a large part of the twenty five years since I first heard Appetite For Destruction, it seemed unlikely that a reunion would ever happen. Slash kept himself busy, playing in Velvet Revolver (with Duff) before going on to record several decent solo albums. Axl retained the Guns N’ Roses name, touring the band in the 21st century with a host of stand-in musicians and finally releasing the long-threatened Chinese Democracy album in 2008. The new Axl was a portly fellow, rumoured to have an addiction to fried chicken and was described by one audience member in London as ‘a gold lamé blob up on stage.’ A reunion seemed as unlikely as all four Beatles playing together on stage.
Then the unthinkable happened. In 2016 Axl, Slash and Duff patched up their differences and announced a reunion tour. Who needs differences anyway when you’ve got millions of dollars to earn touring the world as a nostalgia act? Plus, that fried chicken won’t buy itself…
The initial reaction was one of cynicism. Surely Axl would keep everybody waiting like he did in his prima donna days during the 1990s. Would it be worth buying a ticket if it meant waiting around for a few hours in the rain, waiting for Axl to finally take off his bathrobe and finish that last bucket of KFC? Of course it would!
Then the unthinkable part two happened. Axl landed the job as stand-in vocalist for AC/DC. It seems that Brian Johnson’s eardrums had enough of his own high-pitched screaming and put up a protest. He got a sick note from his doctor, ruling him out of that band due to the threat of permanent hearing loss. Step up, Mr. Rose.
It still hasn’t really sunk in that this actually happened – Axl Rose singing with AC/DC sounds like such an off-the-wall idea. Comparable to Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell singing in front of Rage Against The Machine. Oh wait, that actually happened too.
What a great pairing – Axl DC – can it get any better? Brian Johnson’s vocals have never really fit the band if I have to be honest – there’s only so much shrieking I can handle, and after 1980’s Back In Black, there was a pretty consistent dip in quality. Other than Steven Tyler, Axl is the best choice to front Angus and company – he has the range to hit Brian Johnson’s high notes, and the ballsy tone to handle Bon Scott’s earlier material.
So the rock world waited with bated breath, and the unthinkable part three happened. Axl turned up on time and did his duty. No diva behaviour whatsoever – and best of all, his inclusion prompted the long-standing – and frankly, now quite boring – AC/DC set-list to change. They started playing songs they had rarely, if ever, played with Brian Johnson. Songs such as Riff Raff and Rock And Roll Damnation from 1978’s Powerage, If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It) from 1979’s Highway To Hell, and 1975’s Live Wire (from the Australian T.N.T. album, or the international version of High Voltage). It was so refreshing to see these songs performed once again.
Then, one show into the GNR reunion tour, the unthinkable part four happened. Axl broke his foot. It’s still unclear how he did this – so one can only speculate that a bottle of Hot Sauce fell on his foot as he opened the fridge for a midnight feast of fried chicken. He ended up fulfilling the rest of GNR’s U.S. tour, and the remaining AC/DC dates sat on a throne of guitars borrowed from Dave Grohl.
Last night my wife took a bullet and stayed home to put the kids to bed so that I could go down early to catch the support band, Wolfmother. When I got to the stadium I spoke to a lovely lady named Lucy, who had endured a 9-hour bus trip from Gisborne to see the show. Crikey! She sat next to me as she rolled a joint, out of sight of the security staff, and in minutes we had bonded over our mutual dislike of Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers.
I was really looking forward to seeing Wolfmother after I caught them supporting Aerosmith in Dunedin back in 2013. At that concert, the sight of the band bouncing on to the stage like exuberant puppies made me smile. Four years later and they’ve reduced their ranks significantly. What was once a boisterous four- or five-piece back in 2013 has now distilled into a tight trio. I’m not sure if this was intentional, but it meant one member was pulling more than his fair share of the weight – bassist Ian Peres also played keyboards, incredibly both at the same time during some songs.
Twenty minutes later and Guns N’ Fucking Roses emerged. My wife had made it with just minutes to spare, and thankfully she was there to see opener It’s So Easy. They followed this with Mr. Brownstone, and Western Springs went off like a firework.
Axl did that jaunty side-to-side dance with his microphone stand, looking like a menopausal Nicole Kidman, Slash took all his solos with his guitar propped up on one elevated thigh, and Duff kept up on the bass, sticking his neck out to sing backing vocals.
The set-list was really strong with songs from Appetite For Destruction, and while I like most of the singles from the Use Your Illusion records, the songs from the debut record are just in a different class. They’re truly magical, and the whole of that first record is like lightning in a bottle.
I could never really work out why I liked Appetite so much more than the Use Your Illusion albums, and it wasn’t until I read Slash’s autobiography that I figured it out. Drummer Steven Adler – the one missing component that didn’t survive into that second line-up of the band – really provides the groove of Appetite. His replacement Matt Sorum is a powerhouse drummer himself, but Adler had something else – a swing that you don’t get with most 4/4 rock drummers. I’d have loved to have seen a full reunion with Adler on board, alongside original rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, but I’m more than happy to have seen three out of the original five.
Covers were well-represented, not surprisingly for a band with only four albums of original material to their name. As well as the likely contenders – Live And Let Die and Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – they also played the Misfit’s Attitude, the Who’s The Seeker, and in one really touching moment, a cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here afforded Slash and rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus the opportunity for a lovely bit of guitar work. November Rain was prefaced with Axl playing the piano outro from Derek & The Domino’s Layla, and Slash played snippets of the Godfather theme, Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) and Zeppelin’s Babe I’m Gonna Leave You before the night was through.
If I had one criticism, it was that the show could have easily been an hour shorter. After two hours when I told my wife that there was almost another hour left, she mimed shooting herself in the head (I noted that this was an odd thing to do in the presence of Duff McKagan, the last person to see Kurt Cobain alive; they found themselves sitting next to each other on a flight to Seattle where Cobain took his life a few days later).
At one point, the audience nearly chuckled themselves to death when Axl sang his big emotional number – This I Love, from the Chinese Democracy record. This was like bad wedding music; just awful and such a polar opposite to the youthful vibrance that is all over Appetite For Destruction.
Hit: Sweet Child O’Mine
Hidden Gem: Mr. Brownstone