To hear rock fans tell the story, Guns N’ Roses was a club to the head of hair metal, the knockout hit that served the whole of late-’80s hard rock up on a platter for the gutsy, punk-minded Seattle kids to stage a coup for control of the ship. Guns was scuzzier, grittier, and realer than its peers on the Strip: “Your daddy works in porno,” Axl Rose sings on “My Michelle,” “Now that mommy’s not around.” But in order to crown Guns N’ Roses the reality kings of West Coast hard rock you have to step over the grit of peers like Motley Crüe and Poison. If the tandem Crüe autobio The Dirt is to be believed, “Shout at the Devil” is tacitly about getting tangled up in a bad bout of drug-addled occult obsession. If that’s not every bit as dark as the stories of decay populating Guns’ landmark debut album Appetite for Destruction, well, what is?
Pure musicianship and sky-high ambition are what set Guns apart from the bands we remember less fondly from their era. Rock guys embellished the Guns tale, the same way the war songs of antiquity lifted real-life heroes up into the annals of myth. Axl Rose did access the glam and the gloom of the scene, but it’s the chops of the players that put them in the running for the greatest rock bands of all time. All of these assets were on display at the Apollo Theater last night, as the band’s Not in This Lifetime tour paused for a rare SiriusXM-sponsored show (which is streaming on SiriusXM’s Guns N’ Roses Radio all weekend) at the 1,500-capacity Harlem landmark on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Appetite.
Guns N’ Roses is a majestic band whose merit grows when you get close enough to actually watch the gears turn. You’ve likely heard Axl’s multi-octave wail all over radios and stereos before, but to watch him sail up out of his natural baritone, to be physically confronted by the controlled calamity of the thing, is a wonder. The Apollo set — a tireless, three-hour barrage of hits, deep cuts, and covers — opens deceptively with the cuts that lean on the lower end of Rose’s register. Like Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, he’s giving you time to count him out. When the trademark shriek comes out, it’s shockingly sharp. Rose is a 55-year-old rock lifer celebrating 30-year-old songs, but unlike aging singers in similar situations, who take the keys of the songs down a notch to account for shrinking upper registers pinched by the passage of time, Axl hustles and nails every note.
Not in This Lifetime is a slight return of the classic ’80s Guns N’ Roses lineup. It reunites Rose, Appetite-era guitarist Slash, and bassist Duff McKagan in a band rounded out by longtime keyboard player Dizzy Reed, 2000s-era rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus, drummer Frank Ferrer, and the newest acquisition, keyboardist–tech whiz Melissa Reese. The set list trained these skills on every era of the band’s existence, from Appetite through the GNR Lies and Spaghetti Incident projects, both Use Your Illusion albums and even the latter day Guns-in-name-only LP Chinese Democracy. Guns is a band ultimately defined by the talents of the three lifers up front, but the machine only runs because every piece works in perfect concert. The spotlight’s always on OGs, but Richard Fortus backs Slash dutifully and takes mean solos whenever there’s room to shine, and Reed, Ferrer, and Reese form the powerful backbone for all the shrieking and shredding.
About said shredding: Slash is a guitar god of intimidating versatility. He nails the memorable solos in Guns classics with aplomb. He blows a coda out by triple on the pure joy of speedy fretwork. He pours everything into a killer talkbox solo. He crushes the entire Godfather theme. He duets emotively with Fortus on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” He plucks out the Allman Brothers’ “Melissa” on the way to GNR Lies’ “Patience.” He picks out noodly Jerry Garcia style leads on electric 12-string. He effects Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil’s wigged-out psychedelia on a cover of “Black Hole Sun.” (The night before the Appetite anniversary happened to be the late Chris Cornell’s birthday).
I spent a respectable chunk of the night purely gobsmacked by the virtuosity. I sent out two Snaps of Slash shredding alone in the spotlight. The set snaked out past the three-hour mark, and I felt more tired than the 50-year-olds onstage looked. Guns N’ Roses is — has always been — a project about excess and extremes. I only understood this conceptually, being about five years too young to get caught up in their maelstrom at the height of it. Throughout the third hour of the Apollo gig, the revolution of the band became clear to me. Guns was never just a bunch of crazy motherfuckers playing grimy California rock and roll. They blew hard rock wide open, melding it with the uncompromising bluntness of metal, the manic jitteriness of punk, and the broken directness of big, loud pop balladry. The three-hour, career-spanning Apollo set was a reminder of how rare and special that mixture is.