There they were, surrounded by 17,000 screaming fans inside Spectrum Center on Wednesday night, just a few songs into one of the most-anticipated concerts of the year for Charlotte: Three road crew members, down on their hands and knees, furiously working with staple guns to re-affix the black carpeting to the part of the stage that jutted out into the pit.
The actual stars of the show, meanwhile, successfully played it off like they didn’t even notice. Frontman Axl Rose kept singing, while lead guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan and the rest of the legendary rock band known as Guns N’ Roses kept playing.
Now, if it was any consolation, the distraction happened to sprawl across performances of 2008’s “Better” and 1994’s “Estranged” — so, not everyone in the crowd noticed, since large handfuls of concertgoers decided to use the (relatively) deeper cuts as an opportunity to go fill up at the bars or empty out in the restrooms.
But Rose still felt the commotion was worth an apology. After the roadies had fixed whatever it was they needed to fix and after Slash had put the final flourish on “Estranged” with his guitar, the 57-year-old singer shrugged and said: “Hope you forgive us a little. First night. Trying to iron out some bugs, and got more bugs than a mattress in a Times Square hotel.”
That’s true — that Charlotte was the first night for Axl & Co. — and it’s also not true. Not entirely, at least.
On the one hand, Guns N’ Roses is technically about 175 shows into their “Not in This Lifetime Tour,” which started almost 3-1/2 years ago and since has spanned six continents while generating upwards of half a billion dollars in ticket sales; it’s a well-oiled, money-making machine.
On the other, the band is coming off of a nine-month break between legs, and Charlotte was, officially, the first date on what marks the homestretch of the tour. (For the record, G N’ R did a gig with essentially the same setlist for about 4,000 people last weekend in Hollywood, Calif., but they classified it as a one-off.)
So a lot of attention was focused on Wednesday night’s show. And while, like Rose pointed out, it wasn’t perfect — as a result of production hiccups but also due to his own shortcomings, which we’ll get to — the 2-hour-and-50-minute run through most of the essential parts of Guns N’ Roses’ catalog was an electrifying and sometimes even euphoric experience.
Fans were frothing at the mouth from the moment things got started.
They were triggered by the sound of McKagan’s menacing bass intro on “It’s So Easy” and Frank Ferrer’s thunderous rolling drumbeat, yes; but also just by the simple sight of Slash with his top hat, his mirrored sunglasses and his face-framing curls, and of Rose in his black tee and shredded jeans, a flannel shirt tied around his waist, and a fresh new shorter ’do that’d be long for most men but is practically a crew cut by rock-god standards (his red hair now hangs down only to about the base of his neck).
Initially, the pace was blistering and the volume was deafening: Guns N’ Roses bookended a tight 3-minute rendition “It’s So Easy” with startling cracks of gunfire-like explosions, then sped through “Mr. Brownstone” and “Chinese Democracy” as Rose careened around the stage, skipping, stutter-stepping, strutting, sashaying and sometimes just full-on running around like a little kid set loose on a playground at recess.
After Rose gave a quick “How you doin’?” to the crowd between songs, Slash tickled his guitar, then tickled it again, then tickled it again, each time massaging it a little closer to the opening guitar lick for “Welcome to the Jungle” as mass screaming ensued — beating Rose’s iconic “I wanna hear you screeaammm” plea to the punch by at least a minute.
(The singer also flashed his first ear-to-ear grin of the night during “Welcome to the Jungle,” when a fan in the pit passed him a blue jersey with “Sunnyvale” on the front and “Ricky 420” on the back. That’s a little bit of an inside joke, by the way; a nod to a long-running Canadian mockumentary series titled “Trailer Park Boys” that Rose has in the past professed his affection for).
I should mention here that the mix also seemed to be one of the bugs in the early going, as Rose’s voice seemed to be overwhelmed by the sound and fury created by Slash’s and Richard Fortus’s guitars, McKagan’s bass, Ferrer’s drums, Dizzy Reed’s keys and Melissa Reese’s synthesizers.
Some might argue that this was a blessing in disguise. Because as the technical issues got ironed out, the weaknesses in Rose’s voice became harder to ignore.
Strangely, there were ebbs and flows. For instance, on “Better” — which was barely a half-hour into the set — he was clearly off-key and off-kilter in his higher register, potentially foreshadowing a long night. But an hour in, he found his footing and was noticeably in command of even the rapid-fire climax of “You Could Be Mine.”
Then at the two-hour mark, as he played a giant grand piano while seated on a bench fashioned out of a Harley-Davidson, his voice didn’t seem to have what it took on “November Rain.” Yet on the very next song, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” he came pretty darn close to knockin’ it out of the park.
All that said, I suspect fans’ reads of his competency might have been as all-over-the-map as Rose’s performance. I was texting various friends in other parts of the venue throughout the night, and there were literally instances when someone would remark that he was sounding rough on a particular song when, at the same time, I was making a note that he was sounding pretty good — and vice-versa.
Yet everyone, myself included, was willing to give Rose a pass. After all, as one friend put it: “His voice is fading a bit, but good Lord, he’s been screaming into a mic for 35 years.”
Plus, you can tell he’s putting everything he’s got into his performance. He’s still running around like a madman; still throwing mic stands (I counted half a dozen times he hurled, flung or tossed one aside, though each time it was clearly in the interest of showmanship, not done in disgust); still climbing up on speaker boxes and leaping off; still doing costume changes that saw him in multiple T-shirts, multiple fedoras, and — at one point — an alligator-skin jacket.
In any other band, it’d be very difficult to take your eyes off of the guy. Except this band also has arguably the greatest rock guitarist of all-time, in Slash.
Without ever changing the expression on his face, he gave fans the highlight of the night when he ripped through his earth-shaking solo on “Welcome to the Jungle.”
Actually, strike that — the highlight of the night was when he stood atop the highest riser to the rear of the stage and whaled through two muscular solos on “November Rain.”
Although ... you know, seeing him do his thing with the talk box on midway through Velvet Revolver’s “Slither” was pretty incredible, too.
Or his double-neck guitar work on “Civil War”; even fans in the good seats couldn’t help but look up at the video screens and not at the actual man himself, just so they could marvel at his fingerwork (and I loved how he wove in a couple of slowed-down licks from Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” as the song came to an end).
Oh, no, wait. Wait a second. I mean, does it get any better than watching Slash stand out front all by himself and noodle his way through a guitar-hero masterclass in the form of a 6-minute-long cover of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” that segues right into the opening riff of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” — which of course features the greatest guitar solo in the history of mankind — ?
I could probably go on and on. Like I said, Guns N’ Roses played for almost three hours. More than two dozen songs. (For those keeping score, the list included seven off of “Appetite for Destruction,” five off “Use Your Illusion I,” five off of “Use Your Illusion II,” and notably none from “G N’ R Lies.”)
In fact, Rose rarely came up for air, other than for band introductions, a fleeting reference to playing in “the house that Mike built” (that’d be Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan), and his multiple acknowledgments of the “first-night-back” bugs.
The second of those came during a pause after the somewhat-curious choice to play “Chinese Democracy” deep cut “Madagascar” three-quarters of the way through a four-song encore.
Technical difficulties during the song, he said, “made Melissa sound like one of The Chipmunks in my earpieces. And it was really hard to sing and not laugh the whole time, when you hear Alvin f-----’ goin’, (imitates a high-pitched voice) ‘No I won’t be told anymore.’ Sorry, I just had to share that with you. It wasn’t her fault. But you try being serious with the Chipmunks singing to you, you know? Yeah. I mean ... that might have killed the momentum.”
The song choice threatened to. So did Rose’s windy explanation.
But then Slash stepped up onto the speaker boxes at the head of the stage and came in with the intro for “Paradise City,” there was another crack-of-gunfire-like explosion, Rose raced around the stage like a lunatic, a shower of red-white-and-blue confetti rained down on the pit, and the singer’s voice sounded as respectable as it had all night.
The momentum came back like a whip.
And for eight more glorious minutes, Guns N’ Roses — and their fans — were on top of the world.
Guns N’ Roses’ setlist
1. “It’s So Easy”
2. “Mr. Brownstone”
3. “Chinese Democracy”
4. “Welcome to the Jungle”
5. “Double Talkin’ Jive”
8. “Live and Let Die”
9. “Slither” (Velvet Revolver cover)
10. “Rocket Queen”
11. “You Could Be Mine”
12. “Shadow of Your Love”
13. “Attitude” (Duff McKagan on lead vocals)
14. “Civil War”
16. “Maggot Brain” (Funkadelic cover / Slash guitar solo)
17. “Sweet Child o’ Mine”
18. “Wichita Lineman” (Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell cover)
19. “Wish You Were Here” (Pink Floyd cover / instrumental)
20. “November Rain”
21. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”
23. “Don’t Cry”
24. “The Seeker” (The Who cover)
26. “Paradise City”