Slash Is King as Guns N' Roses Returns to Houston

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Guns N' Roses
NRG Stadium
August 5, 2016

With few exceptions, any musical group’s claim to the title of “biggest band in the world” is typically short-lived. Either they self-destruct – voluntarily (the Beatles) or not so much (Nirvana) – or they go on to become shadows/parodies of their former selves (U2).

Then you’ve got Guns N’ Roses, who had it both ways.

GN'R's 1987 debut album, Appetite for Destruction, sold 30 million copies. And for the next few years, they were everywhere: from MTV to movie soundtracks to tabloid headlines to police blotters. They weren’t just the biggest group around; they were the “Most Dangerous Band In the World.”

You know the story from there: firings (drummer Steven Adler), blockbuster success (Use Your Illusion I and II), riots, departures (rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin in 1991, followed a few years later by lead guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan), lineup changes and the 15-year wait for Chinese Democracy, which endures more as a punchline than an actual coherent musical release.

Guns N’ Roses’ tenure at the top lasted — charitably — about seven years. Not a bad run. Still, in the 20 years between then and the "Not in this Lifetime" tour that hit NRG Stadium last night, it’s reasonable to ask if the reunited triumvirate of Axl, Slash and Duff (plus keyboardists Dizzy Reed and Melissa Reese, guitarist Richard Fortus, and drummer Frank Ferrer) had a hope in hell (a “One in a Million” shot?) of capturing that old magic.

As convenient as it would be at this point to call the reconstituted Gunners' return to Houston a failure, it would also be dishonest. It was an almost three-hour set, long on crowd favorites, with only a few low points to offset the overall high quality of the show, quality that can largely be attributed to Slash.

Friday night afforded the guitarist numerous opportunities to show his stuff, which he did during blistering solos during the likes of "Estranged," "Civil War" and — curiously — the theme from The Godfather. With his signature top hat and Les Paul (only set aside for a handful of songs, one of which, amusingly enough, was "Chinese Democracy"), it was like being transported back to a simpler time, when gas prices were low and a Clinton was running for President.

It was refreshing to see everybody aging relatively well, as well. Axl galloped around the stage as usual, only a step or two slower than in the old days, and unlike a certain other ’80s rock front man, he's clearly in good enough shape to sing while running. Meanwhile, Duff roamed the stage lean and mean, a walking memorial in his Lemmy T-shirt and sporting the Prince symbol on his bass. It was, by most measures, a triumphant return, with an appreciative NRG Stadium crowd cheering them on.

But let's be honest; there's no reason for this show to be pushing three hours with three(!) cuts from Chinese Democracy,  none of which received anything but polite applause, and including one in the encore instead of "Patience" or "My Michelle" or any of a dozen better tracks is nigh inexcusable. Also, "Estranged" more than meets the recommended daily allowance of bloated cuts from the Use Your Illusion albums. 

But as obnoxiously pretentious as "November Rain" is, you have to give Axl credit for rolling with the flow when the audio on his piano cut out. Twenty-five years ago, he would have thrown the bench into the crowd and (probably) called us assholes. Last night, he only briefly halted the song before continuing with the muted keyboard. Let's hear it for maturity.

And no offense to Mr. Rose and his rotating retinue of former axemen, but without Slash, this is merely an above-average gig, and "GN'R" is back playing to a two-thirds-full Toyota Center. 

Personal Bias: Not to get all inside baseball-y, but the Houston Press almost didn’t review this, thanks to GN'R’s publicist withholding press credentials because of “hurtful comments” yours truly made in my review of the band’s 2011 show. I’d like to point out two things: First, my review of that gig was a favorable one, and any “hurtful” comments were presented specifically to be countered later on. Second, in contrast, I slagged Mumford and Sons in their first Houston appearance, yet somehow they let me come back to review them again. Conclusion: Axl Rose is a bigger crybaby than Marcus Mumford.

The Crowd: How was there a GN'R show without any fights? You people are old.

Overheard In the Crowd: "Axl's great! Who cares if he's racist?"

Random Notebook Dump: "Slash and Mick Mars need to do a tour. Call themselves the 'Defibrillators.'"

It's So Easy
Mr. Brownstone
Chinese Democracy
Welcome to the Jungle
Double Talkin' Jive
Live and Let Die (Wings cover)
Rocket Queen
You Could Be Mine
Attitude (Misfits cover)
This I Love
Civil War
Love Theme from The Godfather (Slash solo)
Sweet Child O' Mine
Out Ta Get Me
Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd cover) 
November Rain
Knockin' on Heaven's Door (Bob Dylan cover)

Catcher in the Rye
Don't Cry
The Seeker (The Who cover)
Paradise City

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