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Rehabbing Axl Rose: Guns N’ Roses Reload With a Dependable (and Nice?) Frontman

The past is done and the future is unknown, but in the world of Guns 'N Roses, it is safe to say that the band has now answered enough questions for fans, the media and the music business at large…

The past is done and the future is unknown, but in the world of Guns N’ Roses, it is safe to say that the band has now answered enough questions for fans, the media and the music business at large for all to see them in a different light.

The reuniting of original GNR members Axl Rose, Slash, and Duff McKagan created a media and fan frenzy when Billboard broke the news late last year, producing a deluge of opinion and predictions — much of it negative — that has flown unabated since. News that Rose would join AC/DC for the resumption of the latter’s Rock Or Bust tour added fuel to the fire.

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Five stellar performances in, we now know that GNR can kick ass at a level that, at worst, recalls the glory days and, at best, exceeds them. While it is somewhat disconcerting to see Axl Rose sitting down (even if in the most rock ‘n roll piece of furniture that ever graced a stage) instead of stalking back and forth like a panther on acid, Rose has completely delivered from a performance perspective. His vocals belie his 54 years. The famous “Axl screech” has a lot of miles on it these days, and it shows. The tone is somewhat deeper, but he gets there, which is more than a lot of aging rockers can say.

More importantly, Rose has lost none of his charisma and has, in fact, gained a likeability that’s hard to recall, at least from the era when he was last joined by McKagan and Slash. Rather than the sense of danger and impending doom that once hung over Rose like a dark cloud, the singer now comes across as…nice?

McKagan has been a thunderous, rock-steady presence in GNR 2016, serving at times as the throwback testament to the punk underpinnings that GNR had often left behind the past 20 years. And Slash? Among the lasting legacies of GNR 2016 — and there will be many — one of them is to surely cement Slash’s status as one of the greatest, most furious, rock ‘n roll guitarists of all time. With Rose’s immobility especially, Slash is carrying a heavy load, and the man is proving himself to be more than up to the challenge.

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But nobody is coming out a bigger winner in this Guns reload than Axl Rose. The sins of his past as it relates to GNR have been unprofessional, inexcusable and, in some cases, outright dangerous. His reputation as one of rock ‘n roll’s biggest assholes was well-earned. Even after putting four performances together, the buzz in the crowd before the fifth was all about “is Axl here?” But, in 2016, from all we have seen so far, including signing on as front man for AC/DC for a European tour, Rose has evolved from the most unpredictable man in show business to the hardest-working man in show business. By all accounts, Rose has been professional, smart, creative, friendly and, most importantly, dependable.

A certain degree of unpredictability and feeling like things could potentially go off the rails at any given moment were always part of the appeal of Guns N’ Roses. That’s rock ‘n roll. As one promoter put it to Billboard when we first began covering this reunion, “there’s a fine line between being ‘dangerous’ and being a dick.” Promoters need to now a show is going to come off, within whatever parameters are in place, especially in this case, with AEG Live had more than $10 million on the line for four performances, and Live Nation putting up what sources say is $3 million per show, including production. As reunions, go, GNR was clearly more fraught with risk than most, given the band’s tumultuous history.

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Today, the folks at AEG Live/Goldenvoice and Live Nation are breathing easier, especially the former, whose shows are now in the books.  The April 8-9 GNR shows that were part of the grand opening of the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas grossed $6,265,076 from attendance of 28,849, two sellouts. However they connected with the young fans of Coachella, Guns’ performances in the desert were furious and technically superb, despite Rose’s physical limitations. And Coachella producer Paul Tollett, largely credited as the impetus behind the GNR reunion, got what he paid for. Asked if he was pleased with what GNR delivered to his baby, Tollett says, “If I was filling out a questionnaire I would check the box that said ‘exceeded my expectations.'” Further, AEG Live chairman/CEO Jay Marciano, the man who signed off on both Vegas and Coachella, tells Billboard of Guns N’ Roses, “They were pros, and Axl played hurt — but still delivered. We were thrilled to have them open our new arena in Las Vegas and have them headline the Saturday night Coachella shows.”

Backstage at Coachella on the second Saturday as GNR teed up their performance, the band’s agent Ken Fermaglich was smiling — though still didn’t act much like he wanted to do an interview. For Live Nation’s part, sources tell Billboard that sales are going exceedingly well, topping 1 million, with dates added to the route. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Not In This Lifetime Tour looks like a financial winner for all parties.

In what may turn out as one of the great image rehabs of all time, Guns N’ Roses 2016 is working. It’s time to judge this band on its more recent accomplishments.