Guns N’ Roses take to the stage like a lumbering Apatosaurus, crushing everything in their path and in constant danger of collapsing under their own weight. But then they always were. It’s just that the Jurassic period is over.
Slash has the easiest look to maintain. Still the hair, still the hat. Cigarette gone. He may have a protruding belly, but this is more than made up for by forearms the width of legs. Slash has obviously been working out. The same cannot be said of Axl, who could have taken it a little easier at the buffet. Snake dancing ain’t what it used to be.
The best looking of the bunch is Duff, despite the lines on his face. Perhaps more than any other practitioner, McKagan has mastered the art of the pose. Long before it was reduced to mere manspreading, his bass was slung low and his feet stood miles apart. He occasionally walks around a bit before lunging back into it. And, in truth, this is all it takes.
So are Guns N’ Roses still relevant? Not by a long shot. But then that’s not the point. ‘Göns’(as the Icelanders say) never had phases, unless you count bicycle shorts vs. leather pants. They emerged from the LA jungle in the late ‘80s with one of the best rock albums known to man and went straight to aging supergroup in the early ‘90s before imploding under the twin pressures of grunge and Axl’s temperament. The question is not what they have to offer today’s world, but rather how well they can re-enact their younger selves. And the answer is, no one does it better. Not Adler’s Appetite. Certainly not opening act Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown, who do little but illustrate how much hard rock has declined since the heyday of Guns N’ Roses.
This, thankfully, is soon followed by Guns N’ Roses. Last time I saw a band by that name, in Finland in 2006, Axl was true to form and showed up two hours late. This time, the lag is a mere 15 minutes from the appointed time, presaged by a long video of a skull-tank is if to prove that sobriety does not necessarily mean maturity.
It’s hard to go wrong with “It’s So Easy,” “Mr. Brownstone” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” and they don’t, sounding more energetic that one may have expected. More surprising are the “new” songs from an album already 10 years old, “Chinese Democracy” and “Better,” which begs the question, could the ‘Chinese Democracy’ album actually have worked with this line-up, if all life hadn’t been squeezed out of it in the studio? Hard to tell, even if it would never have held up to ‘Appetite.’ But then, what could?
For me, Göns’ finest post-‘Appetite’ work is the middle of the blue album, from “Breakdown” to “Locomotive,” songs rarely if ever heard live. Instead we get “Estranged,” which is somehow never as good as it thinks, but this applies to the album version too. My sister uses the opportunity to go to the bathroom. Still, Melissa Reese poses well behind the keyboard and proves the most interesting new Göns member since Matt Sorum (absent).
The Göns version of “Live and Let Die” was always outrocked by Wings, and Axl’s debt to other members’ careers is paid by singing Velvet Revolver’s “Slither.” Both are easily blown away by “Rocket Queen.” Duff reminds us how much his bass lines have contributed to the band, but Axl drops the 1992 rap part, probably having long given up on attracting that crowd. New Guy gives us a solo no one ordered, before Slash takes over. That’s more like it.
Duff takes over lead vocals on what seems like will be “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” but turns out to be “Attitude,” which he has been doing since forever. Still, he counts in “one, two, fuck you,” so brilliantly simple it’s strange not everyone does it. I could have done with a little more Duff as being one of the big three, but he seems content to be relegated to sideman. Even his backing vocals seem a little low in the mix.
“What we got here …” is announced over the speakers, but by now the people in the seats are starting to get very drunk. A drunk guest decides to take a short cut over a fenced-off area intended for Göns’ close friends and family, but is forbidden to do so by a security guard. Drunk guy refuses to listen. Another security guard comes and asks him to go around. He still refuses to listen. Two police men come to their aid, followed by a third. Now we have two security guards and three policemen all imploring drunk man to take the long way around. He finally relents and makes his way to the bar. Brain Police may be hard but Ice Police are too soft. Then again, perhaps the best way to deal with 25.000 drunk Guns N’ Roses fans is to speak to them softly, and indeed the security goes off without a hitch.
The altercation has caused me to miss “Civil War” and “Yesterdays.” We are now more than an hour in and more impatient crowd members are pacing back and forth to the bars and the bathrooms. I manage to secure a more peaceful seat before the majestic “Coma,” a pleasant 15-minute surprise on the setlist.
This is followed by a very, very long Slash solo. We are rewarded for our patience with “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” followed by the rumoured but otherwise apropos of nothing cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.” Our yoga-matting fifty-somethings on stage are starting to tire a little, and this gives everyone a welcome opportunity to sit down. And it works well. If Göns have any future as recording artists, it’s to go country.
“Used to Love Her,” was a lame joke in the ‘80s but here reminds us that these are men out of time. They may not have been the most dangerous band in the world for the past 25 years, but still people may wonder if it’s ok to like Axl Rose, who not only sings about violence towards women but has apparently been known to practice what he preaches. Then again, he himself was allegedly abused and molested as a child and talked about this before most people did. The simple divide between bad people and good breaks down, Göns may be cartoonish, but not necessarily black and white.
Slash launches into another endless solo, this time based on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” rather than the Stones “Wild Horses,” giving even us sober few an excuse to go to the bathroom. This is followed by Axl sitting at this motorcycle piano (of course he has one… or it could be a lawnmower) for “November Rain.” In fact, it’s something of a miracle that it doesn’t rain this evening. Icelanders may fear the weather gods, but the weather gods fear Axl Rose.
Another new cover is Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” as if Göns aren’t just asking us to relive our youth but representing all of early ‘90s hardrock. And indeed this is the last generation-defining band, give or take the brief career of Nirvana. It’s hard to think of anyone at their peak today who will fill Laugardalsvöllur30 years hence. If you want to talk to the young today, watch Game of Thrones. They still listen to the same music we did. And that may be for a reason.
Göns covering the 60s superstars such as Paul McCartney, the Stones or Dylan always seemed unnecessary to me, and I am almost relieved when Axl seems as if he will let us go after the second chorus of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” but no such luck and we all have to do the sing along for a while. This is followed by a rousing “Nightrain,” and things look like they might be coming to an end after a Bruce Springsteen-beating three hours.
But there is still “Paradise City” to go and I make my way down to the trenches for the encores. I had been labouring under the assumption that the people in the jewelry-rattling seats were less respectful of events as they paced back and forth from the bar, while the real fans were to be found on the floor. This may or may not be true, but the people down here are even more drunk. Göns might prefer yoga mats these days, but the fortysomething fans all pretend to be 20 again, behaving as 20-year-olds did then rather than now. The best thing about seeing young bands today is that people are actually coming to listen. A novelty for the last sveitaball generation. Even the sveitaball is gone.
Göns give us the final unplayed hit bar one, “Patience,” before moving on to Democracy number “Madagascar.” The ginger Axl sometimes seems like the rock Trump, what with his pronouncements on minorities and habit of firing everyone. But this line-up includes an African-American drummer and a female multicultural keyboardist. And “Madagascar” samples Martin Luther King, Bono-style. Perhaps there has been some development after all.
Next we get “The Seeker,” yet another ‘60s classic, this time by the Who, before we are treated to the inevitable, unequalled, unparalleled showstopper “Paradise City,” fireworks and ticker tape cannons and everything. The band summon the last of their still impressive energy and it’s over after three and a half hours. This can’t be bested and they don’t try, merely coming on once more so that Slash, Duff and New Guy can throw their picks into the audience. Slash even does a headstand without dropping his hat. He is the only one who has been here before, with a solo show in 2014. It was fun, but Göns have always been more than the sum of their parts, as their various solo outings prove. Even the talented Izzy’s debut turned out to be subpar Stones stylings, overshadowed by Ronnie Woods’ album of that year.
Göns may be eternally stuck in their youth and seem to have little desire to outgrow it. But then we are a childlike country, usually late, often drunk. It is fitting that Göns are responsible for the biggest-ever show here, even if they should have come sooner. It’s as if Zep would have come in 1999 rather than 1970. But better late than never. And we happy many who witnessed it were fortunate to be there.