For a band led by a singer who is notoriously late for concerts, it was a welcome sign of great things to come when Guns N’ Roses, and indeed Axl Rose, appeared, rather promptly, on stage at du Arena at 9.13pm on Thursday night.
We can forgive them those 13 minutes as they rewarded our patience with two and half hours of high-energy rock n’ roll. The line-up of members was the same as the last time they toured in Abu Dhabi in December 2010, but this time the show sounded even better for their long-term collaboration.
As the guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal told The National earlier in the week: “We’ve become like a family.” The band was gelled, tight and put on a memorable show. Every bit of it came across as genuine, even Rose himself, who laughed, smiled, danced, strutted and spun his way through the set with a few well-timed and good-natured microphone stand tosses.
For a man who is famously aloof and rarely does appearances outside of concerts, Rose’s outgoing on-stage personality – and multitude of hat and sunglasses costume changes – impressed. No lip synching from this guy – a physical performer, he ran himself breathless at times – yet Rose hit the right notes all the time, every time, proving he can still snarl, scream and roar.
The 28-song set kicked off with the title track and first song on the band’s latest album, Chinese Democracy, released in 2008.
Then a non-stop flurry of best-known hits and fan favourites, including Welcome to the Jungle, Mr Brownstone, Better and Rocket Queen, as well as the guitar-soaked Estranged, which wasn’t on the set list in 2010, came along before the guitarist Richard Fortus deftly delivered a stunning guitar solo.
The band’s cover of Wings’ Live and Let Die, last performed at the same venue by its original artist, Paul McCartney, in 2011, with jaw-dropping fireworks atop the du Arena, featured similarly timed pyrotechnics from behind the stage, giving the band the chance to pay tribute to McCartney without trumping his memorable performance. Continuing with classic rock covers, the keyboardist Dizzy Reed’s solo was a piano version of Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter.
The guitarist Dj Ashba connected with the crowd, perched on high, prompting for responses and encouraging sing-alongs. An absolutely original performer in a lead-guitar position that arguably replaces original member Slash, Ashba delivered his personal style and sound on most songs, including his solo, the self-composed Mi Amor.
It’s fair to say that Ashba respected the best-known Guns N’ Roses solos by playing what the fans wanted to hear the way they wanted to hear them, including on the anthemic ballad Sweet Child O’ Mine. Rose took a turn on the piano for a cover of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, which seamlessly segued into the epic November Rain.
The band performed a cover of Thal’s own song, Objectify, featuring the guitarist on lead vocals before Rose returned for the Use Your Illusion-era ballad Don’t Cry. Switching gears, Rose, Ashba, Fortus, Thal and the bassist Tommy Stinson continuously crossed paths on the stage, sprinting from side to side to rouse the crowd to sing along to the band’s famous cover of the Bob Dylan classic Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. The band ended the set with Nightrain before returning for an encore with the classic acoustic Patience, a cover of The Who’s The Seeker and topping off the show with the crowd favourite, Paradise City.
Now, 26 years after the band’s debut album Appetite for Destruction was released, the songs still sound fresh. Songs that were originally recorded by five musicians sound even better performed by eight. Rose has assembled a face-lifted Guns N’ Roses with what comes across as a “more the merrier” mentality. This century’s GN’R’s sound is deeper with three guitarists and two keyboardists, including Chris Pitman, and rounded out by powerhouse drummer Frank Ferrer. Each member brings the best of his personal influences to the stage to create an eclectic sound tied together by Rose’s familiar vocals. These are reasons why, nearly three decades on, Guns N’ Roses still fills stadiums.