Guns N’ Roses returned to the UAE on Sunday to close the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and this time frontman Axl Rose brought most of the band with him, rather than the troupe of session musicians he has been touring with since the band split acrimoniously over two decades ago.
Notoriously publicity shy rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin’ remains elusive after coming close to a reunion gig but failed to reach a financial agreement in May. Steven Adler has appeared at few shows in recent times, but the drummer was not on the menu for the Abu Dhabi gig, which closed the Asian leg of a tour that has now lasted almost three years.
At close to an average of $4m per gig, you can see why the three remaining members – Rose himself, legendary guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan – are dragging things out.
The pre-reformation version of Guns N’ Roses had garnered something of a reputation for, shall we say, an unhurried approach to gig timings, but there were no such concerns at the Du Arena.
We were barely through the gates for the band’s scheduled 9pm start when the gang appeared on stage, and started strongly, ripping into It’s So Easy, from 1987’s seminal album Appetite for Destruction.
The old energy was very much there. Rose has put on a few pounds, but McKagan looked remarkably chipper for a man who has had his fair share of health issues, while Slash didn’t appear to have changed in the slightest. Then again, it is not entirely clear whether Slash is an actual human being or a symbol. The top hat, the Lennon sunglasses, the mop of curly hair, the Les Paul guitar. The man is a collection of imagery, surely, not a mere mortal creature?
The crowd were immediately convinced. Mr Brownstone from the same album followed and shortly afterwards, when Slash made the most of a histrionically extended intro to Welcome to the Jungle, the audience were eating out of the band’s hands and it seemed they could do no wrong.
But embarked then on a take-it-or-leave-it mid-section (or so we thought) to their set that saw them playing a mix of songs from their less successful later albums.
There were several covers – but not the ones they are known for such as Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Live and Let Die or Mama Kin. There were also tracks like Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Linesman, which didn’t suit Rose’s voice in the slightest, and gave the distinct impression they had be better off sticking to hard rock.
We were happy to put this down to saving the best for last initially, but as more and more of the set became a collection of unfamiliar covers and showboating guitar solos from the undoubtedly talented Slash, the audience began to turn by the set’s midway point.
I love The Godfather, but is a five-minute guitar solo cover of its theme tune really something we need to hear from a band that hasn’t performed this close to its original line-up for almost three decades?
Things did pick up from a reception perspective when the band launched into their global smash Sweet Child O’Mine, and the “Guns N’ Roses goes prog rock” theatrics of November Rain were equally well received, and given unexpected poignancy by the unseasonal November rain. And then it stopped.
To give Rose credit, he did explain mid-set that he had been vomiting for much of the afternoon, and spent several hours on a drip prior to the gig so as not to cancel, which is commendable; certainly a world away from the diva-ish behaviour that used to characterise his several-hours-late appearances.
If the singer was ill, then respect is due for his appearance at all, but perhaps the band could have factored this into their set list? They essentially seemed to play as much as Rose could get through of the set list from previous gigs on the tour, in much the same order, stopping when Rose had enough.
Much like their 1991 double album Use Your Illusion, which some noted could have been one really good album but was instead two long albums, some prioritising could have helped.
In fairness, the band played for close to two hours, which lesser bands would never achieve, especially with a sick singer, but there was no encore, and thus no Paradise City, no Night Train, no Live and Let Die (a rare occasion where a cover improves on the original). In short, the gig began well with a bang, but ended, quite simply, underwhelmingly.