When they debuted in 1987 with wild personas and threatening imagery — backed up by lyrics that touched on everything from hard drinking to heroin — no one expected Guns N’ Roses as a band to make it to the 21st century (hell, a lot of people didn’t expect the band members to make it to the ‘90s with a pulse).
Which made it all the more shocking that on the eve of Appetite for Destruction’s 30th anniversary, when Guns N’ Roses took the stage at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem on Thursday (July 20) night for a private concert for SiriusXM subscribers, not only did GNR viciously batter eardrums for three straight hours, but Axl Rose (a vocalist whose signature songs are more vocally demanding than 90 percent of rock fare) proved he can still nail that androgynous, hellhound screech — enough to make you believe Reagan is in office and Al Bundy is dominating TV screens, if only for a second.
Reunited with classic members Slash and Duff McKagan for a bit over a year now (still a minor miracle), Guns N’ Roses’ stage presence feels once again dangerous and untamed. Immediately following last night’s invite-only show in the intimate Apollo, audience members — clutching free GNR t-shirts and sporting irrepressible grins — left the theater around 1:30 a.m. stammering for words to express how great the show was. Invariably, show reviews from people ages 12 to 60 seemed to include one word: “Fuuuuuuuuuck.”
For Rose in 2017, there’s no ‘he sounds good for his age’ disclaimer necessary. At the Apollo, his unfettered shriek on their “Live and Let Die” cover floored the audience every time the band came around to the breakneck instrumental section, and his voice nimbly traversed the vocal peaks and valleys of “Night Train” with seemingly little effort. (The only indication of his 55 years was a conspicuous, makeshift black tent onstage that Rose retreated to throughout the show during the extended instrumental solos.)
Peppering references to classic rock history throughout the show via short interstitial jams on tracks from Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, Slash’s presence resonated throughout the Apollo via his distinctive guitar tone; not once did he speak. Rose was similarly light on banter, but his eyes said everything as he shimmied, bounced and strutted around the stage. GNR has been playing massive crowds for the last year of its Not In This Lifetime Tour, but the Apollo (as with most NYC venues) is a tight space: The balcony boxes practically hang over the performers and rows of seats push right up against the stage, allowing singers the chance to stare directly into fans’ faces whether they’re looking left or right, up or down.
And Rose clearly fed off the crowd’s slack-jawed astonishment at his vocal prowess and the band’s tightly executed renditions of rock songs that haven’t dated one iota over the last 25-30 years. Even as he put on the affectation of a jungle cat on the prowl, you could see boyish glee glinting from his eyes as they surveyed the crowd during crowd-pleasers like “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and “It’s So Easy.” Much like the pleasure you get from watching an SNL performer crack up while trying to stay in character, seeing Axl trying to suppress the joy radiating from his eyes while he played the part of a ferocious Sunset Strip panther was strangely reassuring. It’s nice to know that even after singing these songs for 30 years, they still mean as much to him as they do to the fans eating up every guitar lick and high-register wail.
The Not In This Lifetime Tour is about to kick off its second leg, and who knows how long this ‘reunion’ lineup will stay together. But one thing is for certain: Giving longtime devotees — and more importantly, fans born years after Appetite was unleashed — the opportunity to witness one of rock’s finest frontmen play alongside one of the genre’s most beloved lead guitarists is not something to take for granted. There aren’t that many iconic rock bands left these days, and most can’t deliver like GNR still can. And as the band’s impressive, poignant cover of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” at the Apollo reminded the crowd, we seem to be losing more rock icons with every passing month. Depending on how long it endures, the upcoming Not In This Lifetime dates may not be once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but why take chances? GNR might not be destructive per se these days, but they’re still plenty hungry.
GNR’s Apollo performance aired on SiriusXM’s Guns N’ Roses Radio (airing through Aug. 16) and on Howard Stern’s Howard 101 channel. The concert will rebroadcast on SiriusXM’s Guns N’ Roses Radio on Friday, July 21 at 6 pm ET, 10 pm ET and Saturday, July 22 at 12 pm ET, 4 pm ET and 9 pm ET.