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Review | Guns n’ Roses at Coachella: Axl Defies Doubt in Legendary Reunion Set

GNR delivered a powerhouse Coachella set that rang true with original-era superfans.

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud

A maniacal fan from the Appetite days of my youth, I expected the Frankenstein reunion of Guns n’ Roses to be a relative fiasco of spectacle and disappointment, an $8 million cash grab. Frontman Axl Rose had earned a Fat Elvis distinction for bloating outward and diminishing vocal ability over the years, and the guy was laid up with a broken foot after the band’s first reunion show at the Troubador in Hollywood, requiring use of Dave Grohl’s ridiculous rock n’ roll throne. On paper, it made no sense, a surefire trainwreck if only for the fact that the voice of the band was sure to be a complete mess in performance.

I had prepared myself for the inevitable letdown, expecting breathless Mickey Mouse falsettos at best, a total shitshow legacy disgrace at worst. But this was not the Axl – or the GNR – we saw at Coachella last weekend. In remarkably potent fighting form once again despite his injury, Rose delivered a vocal performance that began a bit shakily and steadily increased in power and passion throughout the stupefyingly good two-dozen-plus songs in the set. 

Also: Guns N’ Roses Reunite (Mostly), Roar Back To Life at the Troubador in L.A.

Only Rose, iconic guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan from GN’R’s original era took part in the four shows the band has played this month, omitting original drummer Steven Adler and rhythm guitarist/core songwriter Izzy Stradlin (much to the chagrin of “real fans” insisting the current iteration is irrelevant without him). They were joined by longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed, formidable guitarist Richard Fortus and the metronomic greatness of drummer Frank Ferrer – who bears a striking resemblance to Uncle Phil from the “Fresh Prince”. Also appearing with them was second keyboardist Melissa Reese, the first-ever female in GNR.

At the onset, the shaky vocal and skipped words in “It’s So Easy” and “Mr. Brownstone” sparked doubt in the hopeful, despite the rest of the band delivering excellence in instrumentation. And when “Chinese Democracy” kicked off from Rose’s bastard-child lineup release after the original crew split, legions of younger fans with no emotional skin in the GNR reunion game tuned out, wandering off to find some spacebar beats in the dance tents. This was not starting with promise.

Then Slash started teasing the opening chord to “Welcome to The Jungle,” and all hell proceeded to immediately break loose. Wild roars of excitement tore through the entire main stage crowd, and the energy palpably shifted from hopeful expectancy to all-pistons-firing rawk with the immediacy of an electric shock. With scantily clad dancing girls in black leather outfits, CGI images of skeletons having sex and pyrotechnics blasting, the band’s iconically formidable strength finally hit a boil. Slash noticeably stepped up the showmanship in his trademark top hat as he bounded about the stage, and Axl hit his full performance stride as the song progressed, wailing maniacally by the end. Then there was no turning back.

Moving on through an unbelievably good setlist, the band breathed new life into old favorites that few were lucky enough to see onstage in their original context. “You Could Be Mine” was a jetfighter of soundtrack nostalgia that put us right on the back of Edward Furlong’s dirtbike, roaring through the Los Angeles aqueducts in 1991 to get away from Arnold’s Terminator. “Rocket Queen” recaptured the venereal grit and fire of the Sunset Strip that once was, while “Sweet Child of Mine” inspired thousands in the crowd to attempt the most off-key, hilarious Axl impressions the world has ever seen.

And it was fun. Goddamn was it fun. You had to be deep in the crowd to experience the proper energy of the performance, however, because there’s never been a more “fuck this crowd” moment than the looks of confusion and boredom when the Cool Hand Luke clip intro’d the iconic Use Your Illusion track “Civil War”. Never mind that Slash had just brought unbelievable fire to the fantastic Chinese Democracy standout “Better,” closing the loop on past and present – these kids had no idea what “Civil War” is. A seven-minute epic that encapsulates the cinematically titanic strengths of the band at their peak output, the track is a sociopolitical air raid siren of greatness – but to tens of thousands of neon-clad millennials with pupils big enough to fall into, it did not translate. But this wasn’t for them anyway.

Also: Guns n’ Roses Rev Up to Legendary, Run The Jewels Prove Headliner Value

Just a few hours before Guns took the stage for their performance, AC/DC confirmed that Axl would tour with them as their vocalist in 2016. But no one expected the boys to bring out Angus Young during their set to rip through not one but two AC/DC songs, “Whole Lotta Rosie” and “Riff Raff.” Young was every bit the part in full schoolboy uniform, and the crowd went wild as we got a taste of what Guns n’ DC is going to sound like this Summer. It’s surprisingly great, believe it or not.

The obligatory singalongs of “November Rain” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” returned a cinematic essence to the experience, only to be taken higher for the sweet serenity of Lies highlight “Patience” and everybody-yell-along closer “Paradise City”.

I talked a great deal of anticipatory trash going into GNR’s headlining Coachella set. I expected Axl to be an absolute embarrassment, for the patchwork band to sound half-cocked, but none of this came to be. After three songs finding their footing, Guns N’ Fuckin’ Roses accomplished what nobody thought possible after 23 years of acrimonious amputation, and did so with wailing excellence. I’ve never been more happy to have been wrong, as the first favorite band I ever had came roaring back to life with doubt-defying excellence in an age where the only rock n’ roll on the dial is neutered, washed down and under no circumstances whatsoever dangerous.

Don’t pay any mind to the naysayers lamenting the absence of so-and-so, insisting the new lineup is a disgrace, that GNR is not supposed to be this. They are wrong, and stuck in the mud of their own insistence that the only way to live is through their lens. This revitalized Guns is special in its own way, and the passionate soul we were first drawn to so many years ago is fully intact within this iteration. For two hours, screaming along to the songs I grew up with among Coachella’s tuned-out Day-Glo mollyzombie hordes, I was fourteen all over again. Isn’t that how great music is supposed to make you feel?

Holy shit, I just saw Guns n’ Roses. And it was amazing.

 

Guns N’ Roses Coachella Setlist

It’s So Easy

Brownstone

Chinese Democracy

Welcome to the Jungle

Double Talkin’ Jive

Estranged

Live and Let Die

Rocket Queen

You Could Be Mine

Attitude

This I Love

Coma

Speak Softly Love

Sweet Child O’ Mine

Better

Civil War

Whole Lotta Rosie (with Angus Young)

Riff Raff (with Angus Young)

Theme From ‘The Godfather’

November Rain

Knockin on Heaven’s Door

Nightrain

Encore

Patience

Paradise City

 

Photo: Kevin Winter, Getty Images for Coachella