The question was inevitable.
You know where you are, Chicago?!
Everyone knew the answer. We knew exactly where we were.
You’re in the jungle, baby! You’re gonna diiiiiiiiiieee!!!
For the purposes of Guns N’ Roses on Friday evening, “the jungle” was a football stadium filled to capacity with middle-aged suburbanites in conspicuously crisp Appetite for Destruction T-shirts whose appetite for GNR hits was eclipsed only by their thirst for domestic beer. This was just the fourth date of the much-anticipated Not in This Lifetime . . . tour, which represents a hard rock hell-freezes-over moment: the classic GNR lineup reunited. Well, sort of. Axl, Slash, and Duff at least. The mercurial front man and the guitar idol putting bad blood behind them to perform together reportedly for the first stint in nearly two dozen years.
In place of Izzy was a ringer who with his inky, flat-ironed hair looks enough like Stradlin and plays just as well: Richard Fortus, the Chinese Democracy era’s other axman, the one who doesn’t perform while wearing a KFC bucket on his head. Instead of Steven Adler or Matt Sorum behind the drums, we got Frank Ferrer, another soldier in the Chinese Democracy corps who’s a younger and probably more gifted musician than his predecessors but didn’t really contribute much to maintaining the mid-1980s optics.
Before the partially reconstituted group had sounded a note, a discomfiting ring of gunshots echoed through Soldier Field. The source was an unfortunate introductory animation on the Jumbotron that featured the band’s insignia stylized with a rotating selection of firearms, from the classic GNR logo’s six-shooter to an assault rifle. The video seemed particularly ill-timed given recent incidents such as the Orlando shooting, yet that didn’t stop the crowd from roaring with each deafening pop. The gunfire was followed by “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” (better known as the Looney Tunes theme), which instantly lightened the mood and underscored the remarkable absurdity of what we were about to witness: a Guns N’ Roses concert in the year 2016. It seemed improbable, even impossible.
But in the half-light of the arena, a silhouette appeared that could belong to no one but Slash. As the stage brightened, there he stood like some sentient wax figure from Madame Tussauds: the mop of corkscrew black hair cascading from under the top hat, the Gibson Les Paul, the mirrored aviator shades. The image had barely registered as the band tore into “It’s So Easy,” Appetite for Destruction‘s most furious three minutes and 21 seconds. It was the sonic equivalent of a madman waving a razor blade in a crowded room.
Suddenly there too was Axl, with a sinister pearly-white sneer, snarling about your sister in her Sunday dress. No cornrows to report, thank god. And no cast either. The 54-year-old fractured his foot during an April warm-up show at the Troubadour and was resigned postsurgery to singing while seated in an onstage throne. But you’d never know it the way he was loping across Soldier Field’s stage on Friday.
Like the first Slash sighting, it takes a moment for Rose’s image to really settle in your brain. He cuts a figure of a guy wearing a store-bought Axl Rose costume, like something that would come from a bag off the rack at Spencer’s: tidy jeans, meticulously shredded, with a flannel shirt tied around his waist, a pair of shiny necklaces with diamond crucifix pendants. Several wardrobe changes consisted of a parade of graphic T-shirts and leather jackets with varying levels of fringe, and the occasional Stetson.
While Rose appears appropriately aged, a slightly swollen version of his younger self, he’s by no means out of shape. Rather the extra weight gave off the impression of solidity and strength, like that of a workhorse that can reliably bear the burden of a two-hour arena show. Were Philip Seymour Hoffman alive, he’d make for dream casting as Axl in a hypothetical GNR biopic. Four songs in, during “Welcome to the Jungle,” as Rose moaned “Feel my, my, my, my serpentine,” his paunch made his slithering sidestep look less snakelike and more like the desperately seductive squirm of a mature stripper.
Rose’s physical differences are more apparent than the changes in his vocals. His coarse but surprisingly versatile tone still emanates not so much from his chest and throat as somewhere deep within his sinuses. The flaws were easier to detect on more balladic material such as “Estranged” and “Don’t Cry” that force Rose to sing on pitch. On the Wings cover “Live and Let Die,” he reared back, opened his mouth, and let out a prolonged banshee-from-hell howl that would’ve shredded the vocal cords of a less formidable front man. I jotted a note in my phone: “Axl can still fucking wail.”
And the other two can still play. The one in the hat took solos roughly every 90 seconds. The sight of Slash resting the Les Paul on his leg to bend a note during the triumphant close of “November Rain” didn’t seem quite real. Seeing it on the big screen, it was almost easier to think of the experience as a scene from Guitar Hero. His playing was always nimble and expressive, and the guy definitely knows his angles when the camera pans to him—but at some point the runs up and down the neck became easy to tune out. That’s when I started to notice peripheral things about Slash, like why does he wear a watch? When has Slash ever needed to be on time to something (other than a hat fitting)? And are those leather pants or denim pants with a camouflage wash?
Duff, meanwhile, looks like the chiseled, sun-browned love child of David Bowie and Keith Urban. During an extended “Rocket Queen” instrumental, he laid down a low, loose groove, his bass adorned with a purple Prince symbol. Midway through the show, he took lead vocals on covers of “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” by Johnny Thunders and the Damned’s “New Rose,” proving that an Axl-less GNR is merely a subpar Velvet Revolver.
Over the course of two and a half hours, there was just enough ignorable Chinese Democracy material (the title track, “This I Love,” “Better”) and nonessential classic-rock covers (the last section of “Layla,” an instrumental “Wish You Were Here,” “The Seeker” by the Who) to allow for convenient bathroom breaks and beer runs. At times the lengthy set and breakneck pace seemed to be testing the endurance of the middle-aged men trying to burn through songs they wrote and recorded when they were half as old. Three-quarters of the way through the night, Axl sat doubled over on the steps in front of the drums while singing “Coma” out of the side of his mouth. Dead-eyed behind the piano on “November Rain,” he awkwardly caressed the keys with a right hand weighed down by a large, glistening ring that brought his look into Beyond the Candelabra territory.
If the band was running out of gas, so too was the audience. But then Slash broke into the riff that is the bane of every Guitar Center employee, the opening of “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” which functioned as smelling salts. Axl answered with a quick change into a white leather jacket and Stetson to match. By the high-octane set closer, “Nightrain,” Axl appeared to be on his second wind. “I’m on the night train,” he shrieked, “and I can never get enough!” And neither, it seemed, could the thousands packed into the field and stands. If you used your illusion and ignored certain elements—the nonoriginal members, the double chins—it was easy to pretend it was 1987.
For one of Axl’s final costume changes, he slipped into a black shirt that had emblazoned on it in large white type “THE BITCH IS BACK.” And for at least a night, so was the band. But no one needed a T-shirt to tell them that.
“It’s So Easy”
“Welcome to the Jungle”
“Double Talkin’ Jive”
“Live and Let Die” (Wings cover)
“You Could Be Mine”
“You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” (Johnny Thunders cover) and “New Rose” (The Damned cover)
“This I Love”
“Speak Softly Love” (from The Godfather)
“Sweet Child O’ Mine”
“Out Ta Get Me”
“Wish You Were Here” instrumental (Pink Floyd cover)
“Layla” instrumental (Derek and the Dominos cover)
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (Bob Dylan cover)
“The Seeker” (The Who cover)