"Do they have any songs that I would know?"
A petite girl with long flowing hair, a tiny purse, and a tight tube dress is sitting down at a table inside Hyde Lounge, the nightclub that wraps around the top level of the brand new T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Welcome to the jungle... and the new era of checking out a rock show in Sin City, where your admission ticket comes with bottle service -- if you're willing to pay for it.
The girl may not have been born when Guns N' Roses first hit in the late '80s, but she's here with a date who certainly was, and both are ready for a night of rock 'n' roll history to go along with an endless supply of vodka cranberries.
The band who brought the Billboard charts to their sha-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na knees nearly 30 years ago is back and kicking off the first night of a new tour in Las Vegas.
The goal tonight: prove the sum is greater than 3/5ths of its parts. This reunion lineup features original members Axl Rose on vocals, guitar icon Slash, and bassist Duff McKagan. Missing in action are original drummer Steven Adler and the guy who wrote, or co-wrote, most of the early stuff (like "just a little patience…. yeah, yeah…"), guitarist Izzy Stradlin.
A few other goals for the evening...
- Don't cause a riot.
- Start on time.
- Perform really, really well.
The truth is Guns N' Roses struggled with all three during their heyday, a time when it wasn't uncommon for Axl Rose to throw a fit and walk off stage if he wasn't happy with, well, anything. So, naturally, there is a lot riding on tonight's show.
News broke earlier in the day that Rose injured his foot and would be wearing a cast onstage, prompting speculation about the band being cursed.
Aside from a surprise warm-up gig at an LA club the previous week, this is the first official performance by the group on their Not in This Lifetime reunion tour, one that has booked up stadiums over the next four months (at least) and given fans hope that the history of personal drama will be no issue.
Honestly, the band can't afford bad reviews.
To add to the challenge, news broke earlier in the day that Rose injured his foot and would be wearing a cast onstage, prompting speculation about the band being cursed and lazy headlines joking that the tour was "getting off on the wrong foot."
First up at the T-Mobile Arena, however, is Alice in Chains, who, in a combination of karma and irony, is now opening for Guns N' Roses decades after being a part of the grunge movement that helped kill off '80s metal, at least until its fans were old enough to shell out big bucks for nostalgia tours. But no hard feelings; everybody seems to win tonight. In an era of EDM and Adele, the rockers have no problem sticking together. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell even refers to GnR as "good friends" from behind the mic. And just like the gunners, Alice in Chains has moved forward with a modified version of its classic lineup, taking on vocalist William DuVall to help fill the void left behind when frontman Layne Staley died from a drug overdose in 2002.
DuVall gets the crowd pumped up and even encourages them to clap along -- something the gloomy Staley probably didn't do while onstage.
Guns N' Roses hits the stage at midnight on the dot, well over an hour after Alice in Chains wraps their set. Not completely unreasonable since the start time on the ticket was 9:30pm. After all, the first step in coping with chronic tardiness is admitting you have a problem and asking the audience to arrive a little later than usual.
Rose is wheeled onstage, sitting on a pimped-out throne that allows his broken foot to remain extended in its cast. The glorified airline seat is actually on loan from Dave Grohl, who suffered a similar injury when the Foo Fighters were on tour last year. Grohl himself is in the audience tonight and gets a shoutout from Rose.
It wasn't uncommon for Axl Rose to throw a fit and walk off stage if he wasn't happy with, well, anything.
And just like that -- boom! The show starts with "It's So Easy," an F-bomb anthem that was the closest thing to punk for metal kids in the late '80s. Like a boss (or a guy who's been around long enough to know a few tricks), Slash waits until the second verse to hit the stage, earning an extra cheer from the crowd.
Some things about the show are predictable: "Welcome to the Jungle" is early in the set, "Sweet Child O' Mine" is late, and "Paradise City" closes the encore as always. All three staples are from the band's debut album Appetite for Destruction. Released in 1987, it took about a year to reach No. 1 on the charts, but left behind an impression that was felt in countless car stereos and high school walkmans across the country. The album was dirty, filthy, vulgar, and full of Hollywood sleeze. In fact, some say if you hold the compact disc to the light at just the right angle, you can see the STDs dripping off of it.
It's also the best-selling debut album in music history. So perhaps the biggest surprise of the night is the fact that only six songs from Appetite are played in the two-and-a-half-hour show.
The band gets cheers from the hardcores for playing "Estranged" and "Coma," each about 10 minutes long, and both from the bloated and over-produced Use Your Illusion set of double albums that were sold separately but released on the same day in 1991. In another surprise, three songs are performed from Chinese Democracy, an album that took more than 10 years to make while both Slash and McKagan were out of the fold. It fizzled on release in 2008.
"The jam feels like a genuine bonding moment with Slash and McKagan as the three huddle together near the front of the drum riser."
The band finds its groove with a tight cover of Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die," with Rose letting out a long sustained scream in the middle of it that seems to catch everyone off-guard, including himself. In a good way. He's on fire now and the band is in the pocket. "Rocket Queen" follows with an extended jam and solo from Slash in one of his best moments of the night. Terminator fight song "You Could Be Mine" is ferocious, thanks in part to the power of fill-in drummer Frank Ferrer. The other replacement players -- guitarist Richard Fortus and keyboard players Dizzy Reed and Melissa Reese -- round out the lineup while knowing to stay out of the spotlight.
McKagan, who gets a turn on lead vocals with a cover of The Damned's "New Rose," just seems happy to be there. The Seattle native who famously bought stock in Starbucks, Amazon, and Microsoft early in the game can probably smell money a mile away, and with a sold-out crowd of about 18,000 people in front of him, may have already been calculating the ticket revenue in his head.
The sound at the T-Mobile Arena is great, although a little muddy from the sky-high seats at Hyde Lounge. An elevator ride down to the lower bowl reveals the dynamics of the music to be much brighter and louder near the stage. The chairs have plenty of space between them and are stacked at a sharp vertical angle that allows more people to feel closer to the action. They can also be modified for specific events.
It took two years and $375 million for MGM Resorts International and AEG to build the venue. Its construction reshaped the entire Strip around the Monte Carlo and New York-New York resorts, along with The Park, an outdoor dining and entertainment district. There's a 5,000-seat theater currently under construction at the Monte Carlo as well, and all the new additions have helped spur a fierce debate about free parking on the Strip.
But tonight, it's all about the T-Mobile Arena. Even Rose is impressed: "Nice place you've got here," he says.
Late in the show, the frontman leaves his throne for a seat at the piano for not only the obligatory "November Rain," but also a nice little instrumental take on Derek and the Dominos' "Layla." The jam feels like a genuine bonding moment with Slash and McKagan as the three huddle together near the front of the drum riser. The last time they shared an arena stage was back in 1993. Now, with at least four months of dates booked, they're ready to make up for lost time.
So what didn't work?
- Bongo drums during "Welcome to the Jungle" really aren't needed. You can't hear them anyway.
- The locomotive sound effects at the beginning of "Nightrain." We're pretty sure the song is about cheap booze and not an actual train.
- The images projected on the big screen were a bit odd, if not distracting, including the skeletons locked in doggy-style position and the bald heads fused together and bobbing to the music. (Maybe an ode to Blue Man Group here in Vegas?)
- The start time.
The band has always been notorious for going on late, but even in a town where big name nightclub DJs routinely take the stage at 1am, it's not the best move. There was a subtle energy dip in the audience at times and by "Sweet Child O' Mine," the crowd at Hyde Lounge had noticeably thinned out, although the girl in the tube dress was still there, dancing with her date like it was a 1989 prom night.
Overall, the band delivered. But if they want to pack stadiums this summer they'll need to pay attention to the casual fans, the ones who are less inclined to tough it out until 2:30am. Guns N' Roses are on to something here and a wise move would be to let this version of the reunion run its course, and then bring Adler and Stradlin back for an Appetite-only tour. It's a card that can be played when the time is right, and the fans in Vegas know as much as anyone that you never skip betting on a sure thing.
As for tonight, the crowd got what they came for and were happy filing out of the T-Mobile Arena. They just seemed a bit tired.
Sign up here for our daily Vegas email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.