It’s been five years since the three main founding members of Guns N’ Roses reunited, but it still took a minute to process it all as they took the stage on Thursday night at Wrigley Field.
The band’s history of interpersonal clashes, incredible displays of excess and record-breaking releases were the stuff of “behind the music” legend that caused what many thought to be irreparable fissures when they parted ways some 25 years ago. To this day, the larger-than-life personas of frontman Axl Rose, guitarist extraordinaire Slash and bassist Duff McKagan live on so strongly that people still come dressed up in red bandanas, blonde mullet wigs and black top hats to pay homage. That was very much the case on Thursday night as the rock star idolatry was in full effect at Wrigley Field for the Chicago stop of the “We’re F’N Back!” tour that has been gracing stadiums since early August (and various iterations since the group shockingly re-banded in 2016).
With their stadium show clocking in at an epic three hours, the ensemble — also featuring drummer Frank Ferrer, guitarist Richard Fortus, keyboardist Dizzy Reed and synth player/programmist Melissa Reese — ripped through a labyrinth of hits (“Paradise City,” “November Rain,” “Mr. Brownstone”) that was a reminder of just how much Guns N’ Roses created the rock music nomenclature. Who knows what could have been if not for their prolonged breakup?
The concert hinted at this as well, particularly in a peculiar back-to-back pairing of the loaded song “Chinese Democracy” (from the infamous same-named album) and the rock gem “Slither,” from McKagan and Slash’s offshoot Velvet Revolver, both of which were birthed in the interim years. But if finally acknowledging the past in front of a live audience is their way of heading into the future of Guns N’ Roses, then we’re here for it. Especially if there are more tracks like “Absurd” coming our way; the group’s only new song (released this past August) was a highlight of the set, tapping into a heavier punk rock influence that plays to the strength of Rose’s voice and Slash’s guitar mastery.
The ’80s balladry in more downtempo numbers like “Civil War,” “Patience” and the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (ending as a tribute to the anniversary of 9/11) were greeted with earnest approval, too, and it was in these songs where Rose felt most at home. But the singer struggled often during the night to tether himself to a comfortable vocal range, especially straining to hit notes in his top register for the arena showdowns like “You Could Be Mine” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Rose gave it his all in the marathon set and perhaps pushed himself a bit too far to deliver what he thought the audience wanted to hear.
The other main attraction of GNR is the we’re-not-worthy guitar pageantry of Slash, the show pony of this night with numerous spotlight-stealing solos stretching out the 25-song set. Not that anyone was complaining. The solo in “November Rain” may still be rock music’s trophy-holder, but the true scene-stealing moment came as Slash played homage to Chicago blues legend Muddy Waters with a down-and-dirty jam session of “Mannish Boy.” Props also go out to Duff McKagan who nailed a cover of The Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with his vocals.
Individual assets aside, what’s impressive in Guns N’ Roses 2.0 is that the group holds tight to the chemistry that made them such a magnet in their Sunset Strip heyday. In a night of few surprises (no pyro or fireworks, no stage hijinks, no guest stars), that camaraderie was perhaps the biggest surprise of all.
The night’s opener, newbies Mammoth WVH, were a perfect juxtaposition to the later classic rock onslaught, and those who got to Wrigley Field early to experience the set are likely talking as much about them post-show. There’s been a lot of buzz for the rock group since officially debuting last year, most notably for featuring Wolfgang Van Halen in the starring role, as well as for their first single, “Distance,” which came out in November shortly after the passing of his father, guitar great Eddie Van Halen.
The gripping song was one of the most memorable of the set on this night, not only an incredible tribute to the late elder guitar man and resonating with anyone that has had suffered great loss, but also stylistically emulating how much Wolfgang is keen on forging his own sound as a musician.
Sure, Wolfgang has the heritage dexterity on guitar, but Mammoth WVH’s songs are crafted to be part of the modern rock cannon with Wolfgang’s incredibly clean vocals making him a standout in the genre. Quite the musical savant — he wrote and played all parts for the debut album — Wolfgang’s touring lineup includes a great range of personnel including drummer Garrett Whitlock (formerly of Tremonti) and guitarist Frank Sidoris who is also in Slash’s solo project with singer Myles Kennedy.
Other standouts of the set included the hard hitter “Don’t Back Down” and the layered pop allure of “Ephipany” that shows a big creative range. Expect to hear a lot more from this project.
Guns N’ Roses Set List
1. “It’s So Easy”
2. “Mr. Brownstone”
3. “Chinese Democracy”
4. “Slither” (Velvet Revolver cover)
5. “Double Talkin’ Jive”
6. “Welcome To The Jungle”
9. “Live And Let Die” (Wings cover)
10. “You’re Crazy”
11. “Rocket Queen”
12. “You Could Be Mine”
13. “I Wanna Be Your Dog” (The Stooges cover)
15. “Civil War”
16. “Mannish Boy” (Muddy Waters cover, Slash solo)
17. “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
18. “November Rain”
19. “Wichita Lineman” (Jimmy Webb)
21″. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (Bob Dylan cover)
23. “Don’t Cry”
24. “The Seeker” (The Who cover)
25. “Paradise City”