Seventeen months into its Not in This Lifetime! Tour, Guns n’ Roses touched down in North Carolina, bringing the much anticipated tour that reunites Axl Rose with fellow original members Slash and Duff McKagan to Winston-Salem’s BB&T Field. While the hype of the initial regrouping has dissipated somewhat since the tour first hit the Southeast in July 2016 at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, the event was no less electric.
It’s hard to say if the production has been tweaked since last year’s show, or if my head was just in a cloud the first time. Although I’d seen Slash solo, Axl Rose’s incarnation of Guns n’ Roses in Greensboro in 2006 and Greenville, S.C., in 2011, and even Velvet Revolver doing Gn’R songs live, I’d been waiting to see the members on stage together since I was 12.
My son didn’t have to wait quite as long, but his anticipation matched mine. So the eye-catching images that flashed on the giant backdrop screen and the subtleties of Slash’s solo may have gone unnoticed the first time around or maybe we just had better seats this time.
To its credit — despite its football stadium setting — the Winston show was more intimate. Even at capacity, Wake Forest University’s stadium holds fewer people than were in attendance in the massive Georgia Dome (41,500). The Winston crowd may have numbered half that and the sound benefited from the open air set-up without a cavernous concrete structure to bounce off of. The ticketless folks who set up lawn chairs in the grass next to the road could hear everything crystal clear.
The setlist has changed little since the tour began.
The show still begins with the gnarly bassline of “It’s So Easy,” the scratchy guitar of “Mr. Brownstone,” the late era “Chinese Democracy,” and the introduction capper “Welcome to the Jungle.” The latter elevated by digital imagery that played on the concept of the original video. Rose was a tad breathless by the end of that run, but after he disappeared under the stage (the same tactic he used for the near-four hour show in Greenville in 2011, for what I’m betting was a hit of oxygen), his vigor was renewed.
At 55, he’s still capable of banshee wails and his scale-climbing caterwaul, which I imagined could be both a stress reliever or downright stressful given his facial expressions.
He showed restraint when he wanted to. Instead of imitating Chris Cornell on the cover of “Black Hole Sun” late in the set, he held back a bit during the song’s crescendo. The tribute to the Soundgarden frontman played under an image of the Seattle Space Needle (McKagan’s hometown) was a nice addition to the setlist, introduced by Dizzy Reed’s piano, and served as a musical answer to the preceding “November Rain.”
Of course, like Jagger and Richards, Tyler and Perry, Rose’s foil is as big of a star as he is.
That’s not lost on the frontman, who saved the guitarist’s simple introduction of “Slash” for last as he ran through the band’s members. Still shaded by curls and a top hat, Slash was at his best diving into classical influences during he and Fortus’ instrumental showcase of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and his own take on the love theme from “The Godfather” that segued into “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
Once plagued by Rose’s chronic tardiness and unpredictability and the other members’ substance abuse, the band now operates as a well-oiled team of pros with the help of utility players drummer Frank Ferrer, long-time guitarist Richard Fortus (stepping in for long-gone, reclusive original guitarist Izzy Stradlin), and additional keyboardist Melissa Reese.
Reese and McKagan’s backing vocals were seamless this time around too. McKagan again proving that he’s so much more than rhythmic backbone, he sang lead on the punky cover of the Damned’s “New Rose.”
While Guns clearly have it together, it’s fans aren’t professional partyers. In fact in some cases it seemed like throwing on a bandana and a ripped black t-shirt with a skull graphic was like Halloween for some, which I guess isn’t much different than dipping yourself in glitter and six-inch heels before Beyonce`.
What was more obvious (and annoying) is the alcohol consumption that seems to trump whatever song is playing. There should be concessions on the field level because the constant stream of people climbing the stairs toward the bar continually obstructed the view from the stands during songs like “My Michelle,” which I would think would warrant staying in your seat.
While the production, the sound, and performance all fall into the pro column, there were a few cons. Rose rarely wore a shirt without a sexually explicit image on it – we’re talking genitals - that were greatly enlarged on the giant screens that flocked the stage (but anyone, including myself, that accepts and even loves Guns n’ Roses despite its blatant sexism over the years, shouldn’t be surprised).
I hoped my son was studying the guitar and drum-work (as he’s apt to do) and not the images of skeletons in compromising positions flashing above the band during the lengthy “Rocket Queen.” He wasn’t the only kid in attendance. His best friend from pre-school was with his dad belting the words to “Civil War,” and the girl from his first grade class who he bonds over music with was somewhere in the sea of faces.
Parking was a nightmare with single lanes often in use when a second lane sat vacant and rows of full lots. We finally parked after they opened up the camping lot to cars on our second pass.
As soon as we got to our seats, which was occupied by a seemingly incoherent (read severely inebriated) woman who tried to hand me a crumpled piece of blank paper presumably in trade for my tickets, then declared, unprompted, with a string of expletives that likely made my 8-year-old’s ears burn, that she wasn’t (blanking) moving. I marveled at her charm with a laugh and escorted my son away, but by the time I returned with security (after being passed off by both the ushers and the cops) she was gone. She later stumbled passed us, shaking and hardly able to stand, held up and pushed along by some poor soul who’d accompanied her.
Despite the buzzkill, and me goofily pirouetting on the stairs trying not to fall over as people pushed passed us on beer runs, the experience was largely positive and with the initial anticipation of seeing Gn’R after 30 years, less of a whirlwind.
Besides it’s not the first time I almost came to blows with someone at a Gn’R show (me sober, mind you, them not). Thankfully the boys have grown up so much that the band can sustain what once seemed unsustainable for what might be a very long time, and do it without seeming like a bunch of geezers looking for a pay day. Although they are raking in several million at every show, they actually seem to be enjoying it. As are the fans.