This really could be your last chance to catch the most iconic rock band of the past 30 years, says Rob Garratt
Ready for November Rain? Here's what to expect at the Guns N' Roses Abu Dhabi Grand Prix concert
What difference a year or two makes in the swaggering, high-stakes world of rock ’n’ roll. When, at the beginning of 2016, it was announced three fifths of Guns N’ Roses’s heyday line-up would regroup to headline Coachella, for millions of fans across the globe it was an eye-watering revelation.
It was no hyperbole when the subsequent tour was named Not in This Lifetime… – repurposing singer Axl Rose’s earlier retorts on ever again sharing the stage with top hat-touting guitarist Slash.
And when, barely a year later, that dream reunion landed in Dubai, it was a genuine pinch-me moment for the 30,000 fans squinting at Axl, Slash and bassist Duff McKagan assembled incongruously on the same stage for the first time in 23 years – I know, I remember, I was there.
The question is how many of those fans will muster half that level of excitement when the same classic line-up arrives in Abu Dhabi this weekend. Du Arena previously welcomed Rose’s pre-reunion version of GN’R – without Slash and Duff – in 2010 and 2013. This means more loyal fans will be looking forward to a fourth trip to Paradise City in just eight years.
Long time coming
Sunday’s concert could prove historic – the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix special closes the Asia stretch of the reunion tour’s 10th leg. The gig will be the 157th night of a 31-month jaunt, which looped the world twice, played to five million people and is on track to be declared the second highest-grossing tour of all time – overtaking even their idols The Rolling Stones. Only U2 has banked more from a single outing than GN’R’s projected earnings of $600 million (Dh2.2 billion) – clocking a cool average of $3.8m a night to date.
But after the UAE, just two more dates are confirmed – a stop in Johannesburg before the December 8 finale in Honolulu, Hawaii. And with Slash on the road with his solo project for much of next year – setting off from January and including a slew of European summer festivals – this really could be your last chance to catch the most iconic rock band of the past 30 years, in this lifetime, or any other.
Rocking Hong Kong
The final stop before Abu Dhabi was Hong Kong, where GN’R performed two gigs at the 16,000-capacity AsiaWorld-Expo – with Wednesday’s second night offering surely the greatest indication of what to expect when the band takes to the stage in the UAE some 96 hours later.
Expect awesomeness – and prepare for a late night. Despite widespread press puzzlement at the notoriously tardy band’s recent embrace of punctuality, things have seemingly got a little bit lax for the tour’s tail end. Guns arrived onstage more than 50 minutes after the advertised stage time in Hong Kong. But, as has become tradition, they delivered a limb-aching, lung-stretching set of three hearty hours.
So don’t expect to be anywhere near the car park before midnight.
No alarms and no surprises
Repeat offenders expecting fresh surprises might be disappointed – spoiler alert – with much of the set list identical to that performed at Dubai’s Autism Rocks Arena 20 months earlier. Most noteworthy is the inclusion of MTV-era ballad Don’t Cry, sorely missing last time around, as well as an under-appreciated stomp through newly unearthed early demo Shadow of Your Love. Swapped out are My Michelle, Yesterdays and This I Love – the set instead plumped up with a fresh round of covers (more on which later).
These minor substitutions join a core repertoire which you are almost guaranteed to hear in Abu Dhabi – with 18 songs performed at no less than 154 of the tour’s 156 dates.
Such a well-oiled machine keeps malaise and malice carefully in check – but raises questions.
It might be inconceivable that the band aren’t playing in their sleep by now – that even without the endless airports, egos and club sandwiches, any sense of excitement at performing the back catalogue again has been replaced by mindless drudgery.
But these guys are pros. A bus driver might be bored of her daily route, but if she gets you where you’re going, safely and on time, you got what you paid for. When you dig deep for a GN’R ticket you likewise have certain expectations – and I can’t imagine anyone who would claim this rock ’n’ roll juggernaut doesn’t deliver.
Ticking the boxes
A Guns N’ Roses show is undeniably bloated, but this is a feast to savour. The band’s 30-million-selling debut album Appetite for Destruction provides the basic scaffolding, with the opening frenzy of It’s So Easy, Mr Brownstone and Welcome to the Jungle setting a biting, bygone tone, while closing singalongs Nightrain and Paradise City send everyone home happy.
But chew on the meaty mid-set extravagance, which finds ample space for eclectic, indulgent moments drawn from 1991’s twin Use Your Illusion sets: Flamenco-metal thrasher Double Talkin’ Jive is electrifying, the anthemic Civil War imbued with some hazy sense of pertinence, while Axl’s twin piano epics November Rain and Estranged are blissful air guitar workouts wheeled out like exotic sunken treasure from a long-gone era. Coupled with the trippy 10-minute dirge Coma, and some copious sparring on an oddly underplayed Rocket Queen, it’s easy to see how three hours are quickly filled. They just don’t make bands like this any more.
It still feels incongruous to see Slash riffing on two Chinese Democracy cuts – Better, and the title track – recorded during the wilderness years with just Rose at the helm, but they’re not quite the sore thumbs they could be, and would arguably be more conspicuous by their absence.
The last of their kind
The 2018 set list’s most remarkable additions are a plethora of revealing covers. Homage is delicately paid to Slash and Duff’s time in Velvet Revolver with a thudding Slither, navigated by Axl with good nature and relative ease, while Black Hole Sun, a once-spontaneous tribute to Chris Cornell, remains unconvincingly in the set 18 months after the Soundgarden singer’s suicide. There’s also an odd, country twist with Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman – nope, us neither – while Duff’s nightly punk turn on the mic has switched from The Damned’s New Rose to the more emphatic Attitude, originally by the Misfits.
GN’R’s peculiarly persistent encore of The Who’s The Seeker remains in place, as does a instrumental noodle on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Slash’s fret-widdling Godfather theme solo showcase, which sets the tone for Sweet Child O’ Mine’s intro.
Coupled with GN’R takes of Wings’ Live and Let Die and Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door – both dusted off here rapturously – and you tally up a set which is, technically at least, one third covers. This is a cause of consternation to some observers who grumble that GN’R don’t have enough material of their own.
This sounds a little like hogwash to me – they could easily play a shorter set. I like to imagine this over-reliance as an attempt to put on the best show possible, and an acknowledgement that even the world’s most excessive band didn’t get here alone.
A realisation that in 2018, a GN’R gig represents more than the band itself – but the whole legacy of rock ’n’ roll. That GN’R is the last and largest band standing from an era that will never exist again. And that we will miss them when they’re gone.
Guns N’ Roses perform at the du Arena as part of the Yasalam After-Race Concerts on November 25