Guns N' Roses Crush Coachella to Reclaim Rock Crown

Photo: Brian van der Brug (Los Angeles Times / TNS)

There’s a rejuvenating energy which can overcome the soul and truly make one feel 25 years younger. And then there’s the tunes. GNR wrote great songs and they continue to resonate with a timeless quality.

The Triumphant Return of Guns N’ Roses

When Guns N’ Roses hit the main stage just four minutes past their scheduled 10:30 pm start time with “It’s So Easy”, it’s like setting the flux capacitor for 1993. Slash is soon melting face on the groovy guitar solo to “Mr. Brownstone” and it’s plainly apparent that one of the greatest rock guitarists of all-time is at his best when he’s sharing the stage with Axl Rose and Duff McKagan. Axl may look a little worse for wear and tear at age 54 and it’s a damn shame it took so long to thaw the ice of modern rock’s longest running estrangement. But hey, we’re lucky these guys are even still alive as they each suffered near-death experiences during the band’s original run. “What a beautiful night, with 90,000 friends”, Axl observes sincerely before tearing through “Welcome to the Jungle”. It’s readily apparent that the legendary musical synergy between Slash, Axl and Duff is still in tact and then some. There’s a stupid number of people holding up their cellphones to record it, but the crowd is loving every minute. When Axl shouts “I wanna hear you fucking scream”, the throng responds with one of the great howls of recent concert memory.

Axl’s comment about the beautiful evening is downright refreshing, because what the world needs now is a kinder, gentler Guns N’ Roses. This is not to say a softer GNR, just one that recognizes this summer tour’s special opportunity to reclaim the band’s immense legacy. Axl seems like he’s taken such matters into account, ready to deliver the goods with no drama. It’s too bad original rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin apparently wasn’t interested in being involved with this historic reunion, but his presence is still felt as the band absolutely crushes his incendiary rocker “Double Talkin’ Jive”. Duff and drummer Frank Ferrer hammer home a furious groove while Slash and guitarist Richard Fortus slay the song’s molten hot riffage as Axl delivers one of his most menacing vocals. GNR is a genuine force to be reckoned with here, making Slash’s bluesy outro solo all the sweeter. And then how many bands can shift gears from such an aggressive rocker right into an epic heartfelt power ballad like “Estranged” and pull off both flawlessly? Not many!

It’s a little strange seeing Axl confined to Dave Grohl’s rock throne, on loan since Axl broke a bone in his foot at GNR’s April 1 warm-up gig at the Troubadour. But he makes the best of it,, delivering some wickedly deep screams during “Live and Let Die” that he attributes to only being possible due to being seated. Is there a little nostalgia involved for Gen-X fans in the house? Of course. But to witness the rock heroes of your youth delivering that powerful music again at full throttle fury is truly something to behold. There’s a rejuvenating energy which can overcome the soul and truly make one feel 25 years younger. And then there’s the tunes. GNR wrote great songs and they continue to resonate with a timeless quality.

It may seem strange to recall the Grateful Dead lyric “Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand” from the classic “Scarlet Begonias” during a GNR show, but this is the vibe as strangers rock out with strangers and exchange air guitar riffs and high-fives during classic tunes like “Rocket Queen” and “You Could Be Mine”. GNR unites like-minded rock ‘n’ rollers in a special way. When the band throws down “Coma”, the epic Use Your Illusion I closer about Axl’s near-death experience due to an accidental overdose, the crowd is taken on a sonic voyage of which few bands are capable. The heavy groove has the crowd headbanging furiously until the otherworldly psychedelic bridge brings things down, with Axl taking the audience for a deep head trip until the hard-hitting riffage kicks back in for the journey home. Slash puts on a guitar clinic while Duff delivers some of the deepest bass tones known to mankind. There’s not many bands that write songs like this anymore and it’s part of what led Rockline’s Bob Coburn to describe the 1991 Use Your Illusion albums as the White Album of hard rock.

Photo: Brian van der Brug (Los Angeles Times / TNS)

“Sweet Child of Mine” is sheer triumph with the crowd on cloud nine as the band delivers the smash hit that rocketed GNR from buzzband to megastars. There’s nothing else quite like Slash ripping off those classic licks with his sweet signature tone provided by the Seymour Duncan Alnico II pickups in his ‘59 Gibson Les Paul. He’s not just going through the motions either, adding extra embellishments and making every note count. He even throws in some Hendrix-style “Star-Spangled Banner” riffs at the end, a fitting prelude to the utterly electrifying “Civil War” that follows. It’s easily one of the band’s greatest songs and a tour de force here that speaks to society’s ills just as deeply now as when first unveiled in 1990.

“Better” and the title track from Chinese Democracy both shine with Slash and Duff pumping up the sound, showing that Axl still had some mojo working while creating the 2008 album (although fans will always wonder what the hell took so long to get it done -- 14 years?!) An instrumental version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” gives Axl a breather and sees Slash stepping out with some sacred classic rock riffage, much to the delight of the congregation. GNR always had a bit of a psychedelic quality from the Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin influences, something that set them apart from their contemporaries in the ‘80s hard rock scene.

The full sonic glory of GNR is on display again during “November Rain”, with Axl on baby grand piano and fans holding their lighters in the air like it was 1991 again. Slash rips off another magnificent solo on the “Layla”-esque coda with fireworks streaming from the stage for an extra level of rock grandeur. Axl even cracks a smile at the end, obviously pleased with the way the band is clicking. A surprise bustout of “Out Ta Get Me” thrills the assembled further, one of the classic tracks from Appetite for Destruction that had yet be played in the first six shows of the tour. GNR’s trademark cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” hits home powerfully as well. Like Jimi Hendrix making “All Along the Watchtower” his own, GNR transform this ballad into a powerhouse anthem that takes the song to a higher level.

Throughout the set, old schooler Dizzy Reed and new schooler Melissa Reese add keyboards to round out the band’s sound and fit in perfectly. Whether Steven Adler or Matt Sorum will make a guest appearance on drums this summer is unknown, but Frank Ferrer kills it all night. Duff also makes a noticeable statement with a sticker of the recently departed Prince’s glyph symbol on his bass. Axl apologizes for not having time to work up a proper tribute cover, but says the band is dedicating the whole show to Prince, including the sound that comes next, a train horn signifying the raucous high-octane set closer “Nighttrain”. The band destroys the classic song about West Coast boozing with Slash and Duff laying down the smoking hot riffage as Axl spins the beloved yarn about getting wasted on cheap wine.

The fun’s not over yet though as there’s surely still a big encore to come. The band mixes it up again, starting with a gorgeous “Don’t Cry” before moving into a playful bustout of the Stonesy “Used to Love Her” that has the crowd singing along in joyous unison. An absolutely incendiary cover of the Who’s “The Seeker” fits Axl’s persona so perfectly, with Slash and Duff crushing the classic rock jam with a modern power that lights up the Coachella desert. Then they top it off with the obligatory “Paradise City”, delivering the anthemic goods with a vengeance. Slash slays the outro solo, one of the most insane ever recorded, and the band sprays the crowd with confetti during the ending jam as if we’ve all just won the national championship game. It feels appropriate because GNR is back as one of the most powerful rock bands on the planet and a force to be reckoned with in 2016.

Photo: Brian van der Brug (Los Angeles Times / TNS)

Sunday Funday

For the rock ‘n’ roll crowd, Saturday was easily the main event. But there’s still some worthwhile music to catch on Sunday once fans get themselves together again. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats have the main stage rocking at 2:30 pm with their sassy rhythm and blues stylings, but the hot sun seems to call for another kind of music. There’s been a rising buzz for jazz artist Kamasi Washington and he shows why at the Outdoor Theater in the 3 pm hour. The saxman and his 10-piece band “The Next Step” deliver a dazzling set of funky space jazz jams that easily make this set one of the weekend’s top highlights.

Washington is touring behind his triple-album masterpiece The Epic and his band’s energetic and groovy sound shows a star on the rise. Washington and some bandmates are dressed in satin robes with gold trim that make them look like graduates of the Sun Ra Arkestra, as the band skillfully blends some of that avant garde cosmic vibe into acid jazz jams that have the crowd getting down. Washington’s father guests on one stellar jam, renewing a jazz tradition of family jamming. The band delivers the top Prince tribute of the weekend at the end of their set with a jam that blends their own Malcolm X tribute “Malcolm’s Walk” with Prince’s funky party anthem “1999”. It’s a triumph and there’s no doubt Washington is going places in popular music where few jazz artists have succeeded in crossing over to in the 21st century.

English alt-rock band Wolf Alice rocks the Outdoor Theater next and the group commands immediate attention with a psychedelic opener that recalls some of the Smashing Pumpkins’ more eclectic work from the early ‘90s. Singer/guitarist Ellie Rowsell is a dynamic talent with a great voice, though she occasionally seems to waste it with excessive screaming. But Wolf Alice rocks out and the sky’s the limit when a band has the ever-rare strong female vocalist who can also play an instrument.

There’s plenty more music and dancing for those who have been pacing themselves, but those who went all-in on Saturday night could well be inclined to exit stage left to beat the traffic and get home to rest their weary bones. Those who like to rock and roll all night and party every day will find few festivals with more opportunity to do so than Coachella.

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