Photos: Katarina Benzova / Rogers and Cowan

Guns N’ Roses Knock It Out of the Park in San Francisco

The success of this tour is testament to the timeless power of these classic songs and the unique musical chemistry that coalesces when Axl, Slash and Duff share the stage.
Guns N' Roses

It’s a beautiful evening down by the San Francisco Giants’ gem of a ballpark right on the edge of the bay, a stroke of luck for music fans set to pack the park for Guns N’ Roses. The evening weather for Giants games is often cool and foggy, much like the relationship between singer Axl Rose and lead guitarist Slash had been for over 20 years before 2016’s stunning reunion. The warm sunny weather is a lucky break befitting of the “Not in This Lifetime” tour, in itself something of a miracle for longtime Guns N’ Roses fans.

Most fans probably gave up all hope of such a reunion after Axl was unable to bury the hatchet to appear with his former bandmates at Guns N’ Roses’ induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2012. The temperamental singer not only refused to attend, he even penned a letter that attempted to decline his induction altogether. It was also in 2012 when Rose answered a reunion question from a paparazzi photographer one night by simply declaring, “Not in this lifetime.” By all accounts, it was the long-running rift between Axl and Slash that stood in the way. But those who have learned to never say never were rewarded for their philosophy and patience this year when it was announced that Axl, Slash and bassist Duff McKagan would unite to headline the Coachella Festival as a prelude for a national summer tour.

As to what happened that may have turned the tide, rumor in the rock press has it that Slash’s divorce at the end of 2014 from wife Perla (who had also served as his manager) was a major factor. Skeptics inevitably popped up to label the reunion tour a “cash grab”, while some fans lamented the lack of inclusion for original drummer Steven Adler and rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin. But Adler was booted from the band in 1990 for his drug problems (though he did make a guest appearance on the tour in Cincinnati and Nashville), while Stradlin likely declined because he wanted to see whether Rose would be on good behavior first (the lack of which led Izzy to depart the band shortly after the 1991 summer tour.)

Guns N’ Roses should have been on top of the world during their 1991 “Use Your Illusion” tour and they did in fact play some of the most scintillating shows in rock history. But Duff’s 2011 biography It’s So Easy (and Other Lies) revealed that he and the band were often in agonizing misery waiting around to see whether Axl would show up and what mood he would be in (with disappointed fans to contend with at best and disastrous riots at worst.) But it seemed a safe bet that Axl would be on his best behavior this year if he was going to do the tour after all this time. When the band blew away the audience of 90,000-plus during Coachella’s second weekend it was clear that Guns N’ Roses was once again a true force of nature. The legendary synergy between Axl, Slash and Duff was readily apparent, as was the enduring appeal of the band’s classic repertoire.

By the time the band reaches San Francisco, they’ve been on the road for about six weeks while winning raves across the nation. The setlist has been pretty much the same all tour, save for some rotation in the encore slot and this is the one flaw for fans who used to dig seeing multiple shows as the band mixed it up with all the material from the Use Your Illusion albums (as they did during that 1991 summer tour.) But the band probably figures they’re playing to a mostly new audience each night that either hasn’t seen them since the early ‘90s or ever (a reasonable presumption).

As show time approaches, there’s a surreal vibe watching the ballpark fill in with Guns N’ Roses fans rather than baseball fans. A charge of electricity surges through the crowd when the band hits the stage with the “It’s So Easy” / “Mr. Brownstone” combo. It’s still daylight though, which feels a little weird. The energy rises significantly during “Welcome to the Jungle”, save for the fans more concerned with trying to tape it on their cell phones rather than rock out in the moment.

“Live and Let Die” kicks the show into overdrive as it’s finally dark now, allowing the song’s dramatic strobe light effects to dazzle the senses. The energy really flows during “Rocket Queen” with Duff digging deep into the memorable bass line and connecting with drummer Frank Ferrer on the heavy groove. Guitarist Richard Fortus takes the first solo and shows he’s got some chops too, before Slash steps up with his talk box for some stylish psychedelia and then the great slide riffs on the psychedelic bridge that always recalled Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”.

The electrifying vibe goes to an even higher level on “Civil War”, the 1990 classic where Axl Rose showed just how deep he can go lyrically. Like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, the anti-war song takes on an even greater prophetic resonance as the years slide by and the world continues to devolve into a state of endless warfare and chaos. “I don’t need your civil war, it feeds the rich while it buries the poor” feels like it could easily have been written about the Democratic Party’s duplicitous descent into neoliberal economic warfare on the middle class while continuing to feed the insatiable appetite of the military industrial complex. Slash wields a double-neck guitar so he can play 12-string on the verses and then tear up the Hendrix-style wah-wah leads with a ferocity worthy of Jimi’s influential work on “Voodoo Child” and “Machine Gun”. Longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed stars as well on the outro piano break as one of GNR’s most dynamic tunes shines a light once more on Uncle Sam’s disturbing hypocrisy.

Guns N’ Roses keeps the momentum going with the epic “Coma”, the deep cut closer from Use Your Illusion I about Axl’s near-death experience in the mid-’80s. The electrifying energy is tangible across the stadium as the band takes the audience on a mind-bending yet ultimately cathartic sonic journey to the afterlife and back. Slash continues to melt face with more of his best work here, shredding some of the hottest riffage known to rock ‘n’ roll while Duff lays down the monster bass. New keyboardist Melissa Reese adds some atmospheric effects while boosting the vibe all night with her infectious energy.

Another guitar hero highlight takes place during an instrumental jam on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, with Slash and Fortus delivering some deep melty blues on an extended jam before moving into the outro jam of Eric Clapton’s “Layla”. Axl reappears on grand piano for the latter and it’s a heartwarming highlight watching he and Slash rock out on the classic jam. This serves as strategic prelude to “November Rain”, where Axl continues to star on piano during the ambitious fan favorite. The epics just keep coming as “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” follows, a tune Guns N’ Roses has owned since 1988. It’s rock ‘n’ roll heaven with Slash simply on fire with his sweet bluesy licks while the whole crowd seems to sway back and forth with Axl.

“Nighttrain”, that classic ode to West Coast boozing, gets the whole stadium amped up again as the band tears through the incendiary rocker. Like most of the tunes on the band’s monumental 1987 debut Appetite for Destruction, it’s a zeitgeist song that stands the test of time, perhaps due to the nostalgia for the good times the song represents from another era but which are still in our grasp here and now thanks to this tour. The success of the tour is testament to the timeless power of these classic songs and the unique musical chemistry that coalesces when Axl, Slash and Duff share the stage. The triple encore opens with “Patience” for a heartfelt singalong before moving to the band’s signature cover of the Who’s “The Seeker”, a tune Guns N’ Roses has straight up owned this year as Axl’s personal anthem. The band rocks it in an electrifying manner light years beyond the original. It’s a great setup for the “Paradise City” closer, complete with monster outro jam and sensational fireworks display and confetti. GNR wins again!

There was a time in the early ‘90s when Guns N’ Roses was a legitimate contender for best live rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. The 2016 tour has shown that the energy and chops are still there, with the band now surging back into the elite pantheon where there’s only a handful of other groups that could even challenge the rock power the band is putting out. The question then becomes, what will Axl do with this precious opportunity? Take the money and run after this victory lap? Or seize this second chance to give the band new life? Guns N’ Roses could make some great new music, cut a new album and keep performing while mixing up the setlist more to keep the live show adventurous and thus reaffirm their place as one of the greatest bands in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe even get Izzy back on board. The fans’ appetite for the music is certainly there. Is Axl’s appetite for greatness still there, or is he content to rest on his laurels?

One need only look to a Guns N’ Roses peer that also came of age in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s and which is now still delivering some of the best live music of their career. That band is Phish, who share many of the same classic rock influences as Guns N’ Roses. Phish broke up in 2004 because of drug problems and resulting inter-band tension, only to rise like a phoenix five years later and re-launch their career into a new stratosphere. The “Not in This Lifetime Tour” is showing that such a level is now within Guns N’ Roses’ grasp as well, if Axl wants it…