Axl Rose appreciates your patronage, but would find it perfectly reasonable if you had given up on him by now.
“Thank you so much for coming,” the still-snake-dancing 54-year-old redheaded Guns N’ Roses singer said to a Lincoln Financial Field full of fans Thursday night near the start of the hard-rock band’s first Philadelphia show in more than 20 years with its “classic lineup.” “I would have understood if you didn’t.”
Rose’s empathy with the exasperation of his long-suffering fans was understandable as well. After a half-decade run – from 1987’s Appetite for Destruction to 1993’s cover collection The Spaghetti Incident? – the Los Angeles band married metal-edged energy with Stonesy swagger and, before they were swallowed up by their own excesses, were one of the most popular bands in the world.
Since then, not much. The 2008 album Chinese Democracy is underrated in retrospect, but it was rejected at the time by fans who correctly considered it to be the work of Axl Rose and a bunch of guys, rather than the genuine GN’R article.
In 2012, when Rose was asked whether the band’s key players would ever make amends and get back together, he curtly replied: “Not in this lifetime.”
But “never” never means “never” in the rock-and-roll reunion business. And four years on, here we are, with Rose, bass player Duff McKagan, and more crucially musically and visually, stovepipe-hat-wearing guitarist Slash, all buddying up to one another once again in what, naturally, has been branded the #NotInThisLifetime tour.
(And a stadium tour apparently isn’t quite enough of a load for the formerly indolent Rose as he’s gone back to work this summer. He’ll be back in Philadelphia on Sept. 20 as a fill-in singer for AC/DC when the Australian band plays the Wells Fargo Center.)
On a South Philly night so sweltering that everyone would have welcomed a cold “November Rain” – the title of a grandiose Use Your Illusion epic the band got around to (complete with a “Layla” piano intro) toward the end of a two-hour-plus set – Rose performed with a level of professionalism that his younger self might not have recognized.
He’s not capable of the screeching-cat vocal power that he had in his prime, and in his matador hat, ripped jeans, and dangling silver crucifixes, he’s beginning to look like a Sunset Strip-rocker version of celebrity chef Mario Batali.
But Rose appeared punctually, instantly bettering the infamous no-show incident that caused a near riot when he blew off an arena show in South Philly in 2002, and sang in tune. And with Slash joined by second lead player Richard Fortus, he moved around remarkably well considering he broke his foot in April and led the way through a career-spanning set that sounded undistinguished and sludgy at the start (when his lower register vocals were barely audible) but gathered force as the evening wore on.
In the band that included drummer Frank Ferrer and two keyboard players in longtime GN’Rer Dizzy Reed and newbie Melissa Reese, Slash (real name: Saul Hudson) took prominence. Long-lost guitarist and unheralded songwriter Izzy Stradlin, who is not on board with the reunion, is much missed.
But it’s the interplay between Rose and Slash that people who’ve spent 20 years watching bad cover bands try their hands at “Welcome to the Jungle” came to see. And Slash, for his part, did not disappoint, playing by turns fiery and lyrical leads all night long. He cranked it up on a cover of Wings’ “Live And Let Die” (sorry, not equal to the version Paul McCartney played across the street at Citizens Bank Park two nights before), teamed with Fortus on a crowd-pleasing guitar duet on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and delivered a particularly enjoyable segue from “Speak Softly, Love (Love Theme From The Godfather)” into a sweeping and soaring “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”