Guns N’ Roses play loud, lively and long at Staples Center

Guns N’ Roses at Staples Center (Photo by Katarina Benzova)
Guns N’ Roses at Staples Center (Photo by Katarina Benzova)

With the band firing on all cylinders, Gun N’ Roses’ 3-hour, 20-minute marathon Friday night at Staples Center hit all the high notes from their catalog and featured some choice covers.

It wasn’t exactly Guns N’ Roses that rocked the Staples Center crowd Friday night, but it was a reasonably excellent facsimile thereof. Down to three original members, Axl Rose, Slash, Duff McKagan (and the longest serving member other than Axl, keyboardist Dizzy Reed), the band took the stage at the ungodly hour of 7:50 p.m., and roared through 32 songs over 3 hours 20 minutes, featuring material from across the spectrum of the band’s career, as well as a host of tastefully curated covers.

Some 20 plus years past creative relevance, the present-day Guns N’ Roses are a beautifully restored Harley Davidson, missing some of the original parts but firing on all cylinders and running smoother than ever. The money is good too, as the “Not in This Lifetime” tour so far has been an enormous financial success, grossing over $430 million as of this writing and currently listed as the sixth highest-grossing concert tour of all-time, according to Pollstar

Yes, the band has aged noticeably, but they are as fit as ever. Donning his trademark top hat, Slash is a living caricature of what a hard rock guitarist should be. His playing was nothing short of melodic and gorgeous. Given his formative days on the Sunset Strip, he could’ve easily fallen victim to the athletic tap-on “wheedly-noodly” wankery that so dominated metal guitar players of the ’80s. Instead, he opted to combine Joe Perry’s hard blues riffs with Steve Jones’s slashing punk ethic and came up with a signature sound all his own. Sure, there were bits of self-indulgence, but going to a hard rock show and complaining about guitar noodling is akin to complaining about fights at hockey games. It comes with the territory.

Lanky and toned, McKagan was the band’s anchor, and his turn on lead vocals for the Damned classic “New Rose” was well-received. All in all, the band touched upon or played 11 covers. Yes, one could argue that is a rather obscene amount to inject into a show, but their inclusion speaks to the endearment they share with their varied influences. From the classic U.K. sounds of McCartney, the Who, Clapton and Pink Floyd, to standards like “Wichita Lineman” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” to trashy Johnny Thunders, to a tribute to Chris Cornell with “Black Hole Sun,” the band seamlessly flowed from one set of classics to their own. “It’s so Easy,” “Night Train,” “My Michelle” and “Rocket Queen” had the punk energy of a much younger and angrier band. Of course the holy trinity of “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City,” were met by an audience that was clearly losing their heads. “November Rain” was as epic as ever, with Axl on the grand piano, and “Patience” saw the band do an acoustic turn. Even “Better,” “Prostitute,” and the title track to “Chinese Democracy” sounded heartfelt and re-imagined.

In Richard Fortus the band found their perfect Ron Wood to foil Slash’s Keith Richards. Donning a “Lords of the New Church” T-shirt, Fortus burned his way through the set, matching Slash’s energy and then some, and he was not limited to just riffing on rhythm. And while Frank Ferrer may not be the prototypical showy ham fisted heavy-metal drummer, he brings a sophisticated groove to the band that matches their current incarnation perfectly. Youngster Melissa Reese’s technical chops on keyboards and samples played off Reed’s Hammond organ, giving the set a thick slab to rest upon.

Early tour reviews had suggested that Axl was gassed and not hitting all the notes, and if you caught their Rock in Rio performance from earlier this summer, that’s hard to argue. That said, he was in superb voice on Friday, with full range and more importantly, much improved stamina. Love him or hate him, his voice and phrasing are unique among a bunch of Robert Plant wannabes. A three-plus-hour set is a test of anyone’s stamina, and Guns N’ Roses aren’t potted plants on stage, running, jumping, twirling and scaling stairs, these men are in mid-season form that recalls the first time I set eyes upon them.

I don’t have the exact date in mind, but I do have the location. As was often the case in those halcyon days of the ’80s, It was Club Lingerie, near Sunset and Wilcox. That era did not feature the same idiotic musical divisions that exist in the present day. Strip metal, indie, goth, etc., while we’d occasionally sneer at one another but for the most part everyone mingled freely. One could see an emerging band of cardigan garbed darlings called Weezer one night and the likes of Korn the next. The Lingerie also had the rep of being an easy to place to score, which I’m sure aided its popularity among scenesters. This evening, Gun N’ Roses were a runaway locomotive headed towards a washed-out bridge while engulfed in flames. They were everything a rock ’n’ roll band should be: loud, profane, ramshackle but tight, blaring and most importantly, dangerous. They were not a band you’d want your sister to be around. One of many “hair bands” slogging through the scene at the time, GNR were different, they were more grit than glam, they were more Thin Lizzy than Motley Crue, they were the perfect segue between the scene on the Strip and the goth/punk kids in Hollywood and downtown.

It is easy to forget that Guns N’ Roses almost ended up upon the scrapheap of hundreds of strip bands that dominated that scene in the late ’80s. “Appetite for Destruction” was essentially ignored upon its release in 1987 and it wasn’t until label head David Geffen got MTV to play “Welcome to the Jungle” at 4 a.m. that anyone took notice. The release of the album’s third single, “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” was when the album really caught fire and the band went from impoverished hoodlums to stadium-level rock stars within a few months. And then just as quickly everything began to fall apart. Wildly uneven and leaving a trail of lawsuits, by the mid-’90s excess had taken its toll. Gone was the soul of the band, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin had quit (he was just sick of it all) and the band’s heartbeat and first drug casualty, Steven Adler was fired. Slash and McKagan tapped out, leaving Axl with an ever revolving cast of talented characters, among them Buckethead, DJ Ashba, Josh Freese and Tommy Stinson. But what Guns N’ Roses had become was shell of its former self. Ego, immaturity and general dysfunction robbed the world of a band that could have enjoyed a long and iconic career, with a long trail of fire instead of a glowing meteor orbiting on a perpetual reunion tour. That said, it is a testament to their short-term brilliance that they can continue to draw massive, adoring crowds.

In the end, the original Gun N’ Roses made one iconic album, one album of previous tracks and acoustic curiosities, a record of covers, and an overwrought double album that would have been a stellar follow-up had it been trimmed of its fat. It took millions of dollars and more than a decade for Axl to finish 2007’s “Chinese Democracy.” And then the most unlikely of occurrences happened. The band — so poisoned against one another that they wouldn’t come together for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — would come together once again. In late 2015 whispers were heard regarding Slash and Duff returning to the fold, and by the spring of 2016 they were headlining Coachella. All was forgiven.

Guns N’ Roses achieved what every L.A. band of that era dreamed of — being the gritty street rats who would beat the odds and achieve worldwide acclaim. And in a perfect Hollywood cliché, it all fell apart and fell back together again. Today’s stadium rock shows are dominated by people with AARP cards, and Friday’s show was a pleasant reminder of days gone by, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Plans for recording in the coming year have been spoken of and the “Not in this Lifetime” tour shows no sign of slowing down, with a slew of dates booked worldwide throughout 2018. Guns N’ Roses play the Forum tonight and Wednesday, with a stop in between at the VAlley View Casino Center in San Diego.

Photos by Katarina Benzova