No Illusion: Guns N’ Roses deliver legitimacy, generate excitement in Las Vegas warmup shows

Arriving in Las Vegas last Thursday afternoon, there was a buzz in the town not felt since Mike Tyson was beating up on Bruce Seldon and Frank Bruno 20 years ago. The inescapable excitement wasn’t over a fight, but a feud that had come to a surprising end, culminating in arguably the most awaited rock and roll event in decades: the reconfigured “reunion” of Guns N’ Roses. It was something fans had been waiting for since guitarist Slash and singer Axl Rose last shared a stage in the summer of 1993 in South America.

Everywhere you looked, t-shirts with iconic GnR logos dotted the blinking neon landscape from McCarran International Airport where people had flown in from — literally — all over the world to every hotel and bar within stumbling distance to witness a spectacle set to take place at the brand new T-Mobile Arena right off the strip. New York-New York Hotel & Casino hosted a fan meetup that saw the most hardcore dressed as their favorite Axl, from the N.W.A cap and Cooper chest protector look to the “Live and Let Die” kilt wearing days of yore. Top hats, long curly black wigs and sunglasses in an appropriation of Slash’s most recognizable visage were predictably the trend, and there was even an either misinformed or incredibly ironic soul who donned a KFC bucket and yellow raincoat in honor of long excommunicated Guns guitarist Buckethead.

Boasts of how many shows, how far they traveled and which bandmembers past and present they had met in passing were popular topics as the biggest hits from the band they had come to see blared while puzzled, chain-smoking seniors yanking the one-armed bandit openly wondered why so many people of both sexes were adorned in bandanas.

The next day, with show time mere hours away, it was unseasonably cool as rainstorms filtered in and out of the region. But nothing weather related dampened the anticipation like the mid-afternoon news that Rose had suffered a broken bone in his foot at the intimate Troubadour show one week prior in Los Angeles. A video had been released with his doctor explaining the severity of the injury, replete with an x-ray of Rose’s left foot featuring newly installed hardware made up of a plate and screws. “The show would go on,” both the doctor and Guns’ publicist proclaimed, yet the masses were dubious.

Axl Broken

St. Louis 1991Montreal 1992Vancouver and Philadelphia 2002 all begged to differ. What a bad omen to kick this thing off and what a perfect time for Axl to go Axl and shirk his duties as one of the most explosive frontmen in history. And how poetic that the wheels would fall off just as the nightrain prepared to leave the station?

Sure, over the years singers from Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley to the Pogues’ Shane McGowan to Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl had defied snapped bones and delivered impressive performances, but this was Axl Rose; a rogue photographer or itchy throat induced riots in his rearview, and this was actually a legitimate reason to shut things down. Yet not only did the show indeed go on, it would be Grohl who would play an integral part in making it happen.

Cut to T-Mobile Arena, a facility that spared no expense in delivering an innovative experience and ornamentation rivaled by few existing venues in the country. T-minus whenever-the-fuck-Rose-decided-to-go-on, openers Alice in Chains were keeping the expectants occupied. In the Jack Daniels’ lounge, where entry was provided to those in certain sections within its proximity, familiar faces drew attention.

Eddie Trunk and Jim Florentine of That Metal Show basked in the notoriety from their built-in demographic. Myles Kennedy, singer for both Alter Bridge and Slash’s solo band was all smiles, mildly geeking out. There were sightings of Foos’ Grohl and his drummer Taylor Hawkins on the floor as well as ex-Pantera and current Hellyeah drummer Vinnie Paul and his ridiculously tricked out beard. Curiously, noted Guns’ champion Nicolas Cage and onetime Rose adversary Vince Neil were nowhere to be seen.

Some 90 minutes following AIC’s departure from the stage, the lights went down and the place went apeshit, pent-up eagerness at a fever pitch. Then Axl was wheeled out on a contraption that looked conspicuously, or rather, exactly like Grohl’s “throne”, which he debuted last year after snapping his leg at a gig in Sweden. It is indeed the same apparatus, and Rose would thank Grohl throughout the show for its services, even removing the cover during the encore to reveal the “FF” logo and making the quip, “That’s a nice advertisement.”

Ok, so what of the show itself? After all, this was the first appearance of Rose, Slash and bassist Duff McKagan in 23 years on the same stage. Did it deliver? Did the gimpy nature of the frontman dissipate the enthusiasm? And the eternal query: where’s Izzy?

To the first question, the answer is simple: the show was phenomenal on every level. Longtime drummer Frank Ferrer, guitarist Richard Fortus, and keyboardists Dizzy Reed and Melissa Reese followed Axl’s entrance near the stroke of midnight. McKagan also rolled out, as did Slash, but only briefly before retreating. As the opening churn of “It’s So Easy” further invigorated the audience, there was a noticeable absence of the top (hatted) draw. When Slash slowly prowled out shortly after the track kicked off, there was a cathartic release that can only be described as orgasmic as he ripped out the familiar riff and synchronized himself right into the pocket.

In the ensuing two-and-a-half hours, there were few doldrums; yeah, that jam on “Rocket Queen” might’ve gone on too long, and some people were still bitching about the lack of original stickman Steven Adler and guitarist Stradlin, but there were so, so many more highlights, foremost seeing Slash and Axl share the same stage again after all those years of acrimony. No, they didn’t embrace each other on repeat, but they didn’t avoid one another either. Basically, and thankfully, there was no palpable tension.

The Troubadour set seven days earlier was merely a teaser. In Vegas, the grandeur of “Estranged” and “November Rain” were expectedly back in place, the latter bleeding seamlessly out of the coda from Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla,” which itself came at the tail end of an instrumental jam that also featured Slash and Fortus dueting on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”

“This I Love” joined “Better” and the title track from Chinese Democracy as songs where Slash was getting the opportunity to put his indelible imprint on songs he had nothing to do with during their composition. Neither of the three seemed particularly out of place alongside the classics “You Could Be Mine”, “Welcome to the Jungle”, and “Patience.” Then there was the epic Use Your Illusion I closer “Coma”, trotted out for only the fifth time ever in a live setting and first since 1993.

Flying out of town the following afternoon was like two days prior repeated in reverse; this time the t-shirts had been updated to 2016, and the shell-shocked look on concertgoer’s faces went along with the glowing insta-reviews provided to anyone who asked, “Oh, did you go to that show?”

While it might be presumptuous to call this the reunion that will save rock and roll based off just one show, it was certainly a step in the right direction. Consider the equally rollicking event the next night, where ex-Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach joined the outfit for a duet with Axl on “My Michelle” and a slightly different setlist, and the path so far is showing Guns N’ Roses are still young enough to be relevant, still dangerous enough to be cool and still unpredictable enough to be interesting.

The next two weekends, where the band will headline consecutive Saturdays at Coachella will be telling; how will the youthful, jaded, hipster audience respond in the Southern California desert? Will it be as relics from the past performing as a curious novelty, or as something fresh and breathtaking as when they first roared onto the scene? Judging by this weekend, anything goes.

Guns N’ Roses play Gillette Stadium in Foxborough on June 18.