Thursday, July 7, 2016

Concert Review: Guns N' Roses Arrowhead Stadium Kansas City June 29, 2016 and Soldier Field Chicago July 1, 2016. -photos and words by Danny Nichols

The days of rock bands filling stadiums appears to be coming to an end.  Without the power of terrestrial radio to filter a limited selection of music to the ears of the masses, it is difficult to imagine how new super groups will be created.  The list of rock bands who could still command the attention of over 60,000 fans a night is limited to Iron Maiden, the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Paul McCartney, maybe Bruce Springsteen, and now Guns N' Roses.

All of these bands are at the tail end of their careers with no heir apparent.  This is a shame.  Although I am grateful to live in a world where small bands can find a stage and a niche market, and while concert attendance should not be a barometer of a band's quality, I think there is a place in the world for for the energy and environment of a packed stadium all listening to the same music.

You can have a great concert experience without fireworks during the encore, but they sure don't hurt.

Guns N Roses in Chicago
At the very least, it is reasonable to assume it is possible the long awaited, eagerly anticipated and hotly debated Guns N Roses reunion tour, could be the last chance most of us will have to see an iconic stadium show.  I can think of no band more worthy of this distinction.

If you were born at any time between 1970 and 1980 the music of Guns N Roses is probably the soundtrack to your life, whether you like it or not, given its ubiquitousness at every sports venue, graduation, barbeque and more than a few weddings.  I can still remember the first time I heard Appetite for Destruction on a friend's Sony Walkman, while walking home from the seventh grade with a few friends.  Within a year a classmate had been sent home for wearing a GNR Lies T-shirt to a Catholic school and a significant portion of my class was singing along with "Paradise City" at eighth grade graduation.

Duff and Slash in Chicago
Another friend had the three seminal albums on rotation in his car the entirety of Junior year.  There was a stretch of about seven years in my life where Guns N Roses was a featured part of every day. As a friend said on the ride to Arrowhead Stadium, they are the Rolling Stones of our generation.  This might be an understatement.

Guns N Roses was the perfect storm of musical genius.  Axl Rose provided a high octane yet melodic raspy and soulful crooning, which can be described as a cross between Elton John, Steven Tyler and Janis Joplin, yet still unique from anything else which came before or since.

Rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin and bassist Duff McKagan had a punk rock sensibility to creating infectious riffs and grooving melodies.  Steven Adler played drums with an enthusiasm and energy which always threatened to keep him just a step ahead of the beat, in effect dragging the rest of the band forward to keep pace. This inadvertently created a unique swing and sway to the band's debut album which subsequent GNR drummers have duplicated.

Axl in Chicago
This was all tied together by lead guitarist Slash, who provided a tapestry of blues based solos, which were so intricate, melodic and perfect, they often surpassed the melody or vocals and became the essential element of each song.  In fairly short order Guns N' Roses took over the world.  And then it all fell apart.

Fame, drugs and intraband squabbling soon took their toll, and the classic lineup progressively became no more.  While their solo projects were all excellent in their own right, the general perception is this band's sum is greater than the total of their parts and the rock world has long clamored for a reunion.  Now, finally, after over twenty years, hatchets have been buried and Slash, Duff and Axl have agreed to share the stage once more.  Seeing this epic show just once seemed insufficient and thus pricey tickets were procured for two shows, Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City and Soldier Field in Chicago.

Axl and Slash play "November Rain" in Chicago
At first, I was disappointed the reunion did not include Steven Adler or Izzy Stradlin.  For reasons which can probably be guessed at, but may never be fully known, they either elected not to be or were not invited to be, a part of this tour.  Still, their longtime replacements Frank Ferrer and Richard Fortus were amazing as always, and have earned the right to be on this tour.  Adler and Stradlin are legends, and I hope to see the day when they return to the GNR fold, but if you are skipping this tour because of their exclusion, you are making a mistake. (Since initially typing this review Steven Adler has in fact joined the band on stage for two songs during the July 6, 2016 show in Cincinnati. Hopefully this is not the last we see of him).

The set list was extensive and representative of the entire Guns N' Roses' career, even including post break-up songs neither Slash nor Duff were involved in creating.  There were eight songs from Appetite for Destruction, seven songs from the Use Your Illusion double album, three songs from Chinese Democracy, five cover songs and two instrumentals. 

Over 60,000 packed into Soldier Field
After the first night in Kansas City, I thought it would be better to have had less covers and instrumentals and instead include a few more of their own tunes.  However, by the time I had watched the nearly identical set list a second time in Chicago, I understood their plan.  The idea was to create an immersive symphony which delivered the hits everyone wanted to hear, the deep cuts which rewarded the devoted fans and something new to make this tour a unique event separate from the albums themselves.
Bassist Duff McKagan in Chicago

"November Rain" was all the more powerful when preceded by an extended instrumental introduction of Eric Clapton's "Layla".  "Sweet Child o' Mine" similarly benefited from being preceded by Slash performing the "Theme from The Godfather".  Although debatable, I personally think Chinese Democracy is a great album, and was glad songs from it were included in the set list.  Slash gave them his all and made them his own.

Duff McKagan was handed vocal duties to perform "Raw Power" in Kansas City and "New Rose" in Chicago, and both were amazing. St. Louis' own Richard Fortus was given an opportunity to shine on an instrumental duet with Slash of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here".  The highlight of both nights was the band's performance of "Coma" which  had not been performed live in over twenty years.

Fireworks light up Arrowhead Stadium

The band was tight and powerful.  Slash was in top form, hitting every note of every epic solo, eliciting rampant cheers from the massive crowd every time he stepped forward and raised his guitar to its signature 90 degree angle.

Axl, for the most part, was in excellent form.  There were several moments during both shows, such as during "Rocket Queen", "You Could Be Mine" and the Chicago version of "Nightrain" where he would sing in a higher key than on the album versions.  I am not sure if this was by design,  necessity or accident, and I wished he had stayed in proper key.  Still, it was no matter as the assembled throng was there to sing along and help him through.

Slash and Axl in Kansas City
During most songs, "Civil War" especially, his voice was so perfect you would think you were listening to the album.  Going into the tour there were concerns about Axl's voice, but they were waylayed by a powerful performance. 

This show was like a time machine back to Guns N' Roses' 1991 apogee.  Twenty five years of regret over having not seen them during the Use Your Illusion tour were layed to rest in Kansas City and Chicago. I recommend including in your concert attendance entourage at least a few of the same buddies who leant you their walkman in the seventh grade, as I discovered this increases the emotional impact of finally seeing these songs performed live all the greater.

Sure my wife and friends laughed at me for abandoning my assigned Chicago seat for a much closer to the stage and louder standing room spot, for bringing home a pocket full of authentic (shot from the stage during "Paradise City") confetti, and for spending a small fortune at the merchandise booth on show exclusive T-shirts, but they understood.  This was the reunion tour the world had been waiting for.  Guns N' Roses had delivered in fine fashion, meeting or exceeding all of our expectations.

Guns N' Roses take a final bow in Kansas City.

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