2016 In Review: Welcoming Back Guns N' Roses After 20-Plus Years of Patience

Katarina Benzova
Guns N’ Roses photographed during the Not In This Lifetime Tour live at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 1, 2016.

For rock star and audience member alike, getting old sucks.

It's hot. And it's 1992.

Well, only one of those facts is true, but the thousands filing into San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium to see Guns N' Roses on Aug. 22, 2016 are certainly trying to believe both.

Ian Astbury, lead singer of The Cult, paces the stage in a leather jacket. He's 54, and as he howls at the crowd about how time hustles those who wait, you can see sweat leak from his face and down his neck as though he were melting before our eyes.

I am also sweating, soaking my T-shirt actually, but only from the journey through the parking lot and the security line. I don't do so well in the heat. You wouldn't guess it if you knew the desert town in which I grew up, escaping the heat by watching Guns N' Roses videos on MTV, but it's true. I can't stand it. The younger revelers in the parking lot and within the unforgiving concrete of the stadium don't seem to notice the temperature, so I try to act cool. Heat might not bother a crowd accustomed to Coachella at 105 degrees, but it can be agonizing to others, even when you're still on the happy side of 40.

So Ian and I sweat it out as thousands stream in, filling the stadium for the headliner, a reunion of an original-ish Guns N' Roses. The Cult is crushing it on stage.

The most prevalent demographic, busy ignoring the opening act, is that of the white, middle-aged nostalgic, who make up a contingent that have come to the show as others come to Jesus. While I am here out of mere curiosity, people around me, even complete strangers exchange high-fives and yell "Guns and F---IN' ROSES" at each other. This isn't Qualcomm Stadium anymore. To those in attendance, this tour is an ancient prophecy from 1992, so it is 1992, and they are here to wring out every last drop of it. This may not be my version of heaven, but I am a nostalgic too, so I am similarly ready to suspend my disbelief and relive the days of Headbangers Ball.

However, the early '90s looks a little different from here. There are souvenir tents everywhere, even on the field within view of the stage, where fans buy T-shirts, sweatshirts, even leather jackets, and carry them off in plastic bags adorned with the band's logo. Cops on duty chat cheerfully with concertgoers; one officer helps a very drunk woman to her feet, and another fist bumps a man wearing a denim jacket with, among others, a Body Count patch. There are enough Slash-style top hats, Axl Rose bandanas and aviator glasses that it feels more like a GNR costume party than a concert.  24 years ago, the aesthetic felt legitimately dangerous; this feels more sanitized.

I buy an $8 beer and pour a third of it down my throat. I may not actually be cool, but at least now I've cooled down.

Security guards stand at the entrance to the field level and demand that I dump the rest of my beer out of its aluminum bottle into a plastic cup. This, I can only assume, is to ensure that I won't throw it at Axl tonight.

Also carrying a plastic cup is a man in his late 40s sitting next to me, who introduces himself as Peter, an insurance agent. Peter and his date wear broad smiles and speak like they are each enjoying an eight-beer buzz. "I was here way back when Metallica and them came through," Peter says about the ill-fated tour that brought injury, mayhem, and disappointment to parts of the world. He points to the upper deck and says, "Back then I was sitting way the hell up there!" When I mention how excited people are to be here, Peter shakes his head, the smile drops a bit, and he says what's on everyone's minds: "This has been a long time coming -- too long."

The sun has set by the time The Cult wraps things up, but the stadium still simmers. The set time for Guns N' Roses is 8:30, and the band is late. Of course they are. When they take the stage closer to 9:15 no one seems to mind, however; their mere presence feels like a relative miracle to many in the crowd who remember the riots in Montreal in '92, or Vancouver in '02 -- both of which were the result of the simple fact that Axl Rose, despite all the planning in the world, was not in attendance when expected. Back then, Axl's public persona was a sort of Eminem-Trump-Kanye West hybrid, and he appeared whenever he damn well pleased, which wasn't often. But that was a long time ago.

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The show in San Diego begins with Appetite for Destruction's "It's So Easy," and Axl & Co. do stroll on stage while making it look, in fact, easy. The band falls heavily into the chord progression and the sound comes out like barking dogs. These opening notes, combined with spectacular fireworks and Axl's howling, trigger the crowd into a frenzy. Upon the opening salvo of "Mr. Brownstone," with eyes as wide as a toddler's, my row-mate Peter shoots his fists toward the sky, where he will hold them for most of the night. The crowd around us doesn't seem angry in the slightest -- it's ecstatic.

The band tears through cross sections of their catalog, mercifully pumping the brakes on selections from Chinese Democracy, and leaning heavily on favorites like "November Rain," "Out Ta Get Me," and a triumphant "Sweet Child O' Mine" instead. The teeming masses are barely able to take a breath from singing along, and I'd be lying if I said that "Welcome to the Jungle" didn't give me chills.

Make no mistake, it is a good show -- great, even. Slash's fingers move with the fluid ease they always have, and while Axl's voice isn't what it used to be, it certainly suffices. Duff McKagen plays with effortless muscle memory, mugging for the horde. During "Attitude," Duff wears the smile of someone who is genuinely enjoying the moment. If ever the band were accused of having any class at all, it would be due to Duff.

Axl introduces the band, which is somewhat necessary considering it includes three non-original musicians, but it's almost absurd when he gets to the members who were there from the beginning. As though the crowd needs to be introduced to someone like Slash, a man who looks not much different than the face seen behind long hair and sunglasses on MTV hundreds of times in the 90s.

Beyond that there isn't much banter from the stage, but Axl does make time for a few costume changes, alternating bandanas, tasteless T-shirts, and bedazzled jackets, which must be important to  Axl.Seems important to the crowd as well, since cheers grow whenever he appears with a new get-up, the true believers loving it, and him, more and more as the night proceeds.

The fever in the crowd comes to a head at the conclusion of "Nightrain" when the singer stands on his monitors, straddling the space between them as though they were conquered beasts. From up there the man takes a beat and looks out over his kingdom, at what he's created, finally, after all these years. 

During the encore, Axl begins whistling into the microphone and the standing masses cheer, recognizing "Patience." Peter dances slowly with his date in the aisle, and mouths the words: Woman take it slow, and things will be just fine. The lyrics, originally penned about the troublesome relationship between Rose and a woman who is now his ex-wife, surely carry a new meaning today -- patience being the only thing that got these fans through the last 20 years.

* * *

So, where does this leave Guns N' Roses? In a cultural landscape ruled by the likes of Kanye and Taylor Swift, what becomes of this venerable, if no longer wildly unpredictable band? Chinese Democracy clearly didn't cut it, and there are no apparent plans to record together in the near future, which begs the question: Is Guns N' Roses simply a nostalgia act?

Anyone old enough to remember Guns N' Roses as they used to be -- sewer rats of the Sunset strip, elevated by a singular vocalist and a talented lead guitarist -- knows it sucks to get old. Is that why so many people are willing to pay through the nose to sit in a stadium where these men have finally agreed to share the air? To capture a whiff of a world where there has only been one Gulf War, no housing bubble, and where parents feared Guns N' Roses' ferocious brand of blues metal instead of school shootings? Looking at the crowd at Qualcomm, I suppose so.

It's a hard lesson of middle age that we seem to get a little fatter with each passing day, and as the hair thins and the memories fade, so do the best days most of us will ever know. That's the way it feels sometimes, but maybe we should ask Peter the insurance agent to be sure.

At the very least, here in the San Diego heat, GNR and their nostalgic friends threw a huge party that made everyone feel young again, where they got to dance in the lights, and shake with the groove, and grind their teeth at the noise. And, for a moment, completely forget the years -- if any -- that have passed at all.

Billboard Year in Music 2016