By BRUCE DENNILL
Not In This Lifetime… Tour / Guns N Roses / FNB Stadium, Soweto, Johannesburg
Guns N Roses are a tough proposition when it comes to managing expectations. Mention the band’s name, and most music fans speak of their love for the guitar playing of Slash, who left GNR in 1996 and only rejoined in 2016; or the bass work of Duff McKagan, who quit in 1997 and came back in 2016. Ask anyone to name the band’s hits and for the most part, they’ll mention tracks – Sweet Child O’ Mine, Welcome To The Jungle, Paradise City, November Rain, Civil War, Live & Let Die and Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – all released between 1987 and 1991.
Plenty has happened since, but this is an act that has, for more or less three decades, existed in a robust nostalgia bubble that no number of member changes (singer Axl Rose is the only member who has featured in every line-up) or controversies could pop, and that established vision of the band would likely have been what most Johannesburg fans had in mind when attending GNR’s first South African concert at the FNB Stadium.
The current line-up is one of the best, with Slash and McKagan back on board along with long-time members Dizzy Reed (keys), Richard Fortus (guitars), Frank Ferrer (drums) and relative newcomer Melissa Reese (synths and keys), but it’s a mark of the power of the above-mentioned brand (as opposed to band) that many SA concertgoers would have regarded Reed, Fortus and Ferrer as “the new guys”, despite them having joined in 1990, 2002 and 2006, respectively.
Before the headliners took the stage, Johannesburg rockers Wonderboom played a well-crafted set of recently-released originals (including Southern Light and Ooh La La) and their big anthemic versions of Juluka’s Africa, eVoid’s Shadows and others. Their comfort and confidence in such a setting gave local fans a sense of why the band has achieved so much on a range of international live music platforms recently.
The gigantic screens to both sides of and behind the stage hosted a series of GNR-related visuals to help fill the gap between Wonderboom exits and the start of the main set. Curiously, the erstwhile “most dangerous band in the world” had gone for some relatively simplistic gaming-style graphics for this looped sequence. Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie has nothing to fear from the various scuttling robot creatures here.
Once on stage, though, Guns N Roses can, and do, still deliver. Past concerns about Rose’s weight and ability to hit his old notes, plus rumours about how the band members can’t stand to be anywhere near each other, are soon allayed. Everyone looks fit – a perception that will be confirmed by the astounding collective stamina that allows them to play for the better part of three-and-a-half hours without a perceptible dip in energy or focus.
Rose has lost the snake-hipped litheness that made him such a magnetic stage presence in the band’s early music videos, and the no-holds-barred vocal style that gained him a reputation as one of the best singers in rock history is simply no longer sustainable. But there are signs of both great discipline among the musicians on stage and an overall strategy of resource management (not a very rock and roll concept, but the results are impressive) is evident.
Rose restricts his dance moves to a single back-and-forth channel near the front of the stage, and is aware of where his bandmates are at all times. Many of the parts that were originally thrilling banshee wail are now carefully controlled falsettos – no less impressive, but rather less electrifying. The singer heads offstage and back on in a new T-shirt and hat from time to time, and at other times simply withdraws downstage to where the guitar amps are stacked, letting Slash, McKagan or Fortus take the spotlight for a while. Like a jazz set, this gives all the musicians a chance to show off their skill, but it also has the effect of allowing Rose’s vocal chords a bit of downtime and thus increasing the chances of his being able to sing the closing song as with the same force that he does the first.
This approach means that there are dozens of guitar solos worked into the set, either as part of the arrangement for the various songs or as standalone pieces – as in the case of Slash’s famous interpretation of the theme from The Godfather. For listeners more accustomed to the radio edits of the band’s better-know songs, such sustained shredding may have required a little more investment than they were willing to give. But these passages underlined the virtuosity of the players. Fortus would have been a new discovery for some onlookers, but he has incredible technical skill, coupled with an awareness and modesty that means he wi reliably able to fill any unexpected hole (such as when Slash broke a string and needed to make an unscheduled guitar substitution) in the greater sonic fabric of the overall performance.
If Rose has had to tone down on his dynamism over time, Slash has perhaps gone the other way more than two decades and a hugely successful solo career down the line. His recorded output for GNR, hugely impressive as it is, doesn’t communicate the level of dexterity and skill with which he plays in a live context. Every one of the thousands of notes he plays over the course of the concert rings clear and true, and he utilises the top frets (right up near the pick-ups) of his guitars more than most players of similar profile.
McKagan is easily the coolest person in the stadium – there’s more than a touch of David Bowie about his manner – making his assured, foundational playing look effortless and throwing the occasional lead vocal into the mix for good measure.
Was this what fans who’ve been waiting 30 years to see a defining act of their youth were expecting? Possibly not. On the downside, if you were not intimately acquainted with the band’s catalogue beyond their singles, some of the choices might’ve sounded pretty samey, not least when each contained a three-minute solo or two. On the upside, though, there were unexpected additions – GNR are not high on most people’s lists of bands likely to cover Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman, but they did, with a take Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun a more obvious but also unforeseen inclusion – in addition to the glorious high points of Welcome To The Jungle, Live And Let Die, Sweet Child O’ Mine (the loudest cheer of the night), November Rain, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, Patience and the closing Paradise City.
This was a collective that has at several points in its history been everything from unpredictable to outright crazy being both professional and generous (in performance terms; top-price ticket holders might take umbrage with that word). From a mainstream perspective, there was enough to satisfy most; and from a musicianship and influence point of view, Guns N Roses opened the taps. Sound issues in some areas of the huge stadium (gusting wind didn’t help, but it wasn’t the only frustration) will keep people raising questions about what fans should be able to expect at such enormous events, but the band delivered on stage, even if their contemporary cultural currency is not what it once was.