United Kingdom | 23 August 2002
As it reaches curfew time (an hour and a half after they were due to take the stage), the headliners have still not appeared. In fact, there have been rumours for weeks that they would never appear. Why, they haven't appeared for over nine years. And then, in a sudden flash, the opening bars of 'Welcome to the Jungle' burst forth like a ravenous beast returning to reclaim its territory. For a split second, the crowd is silent - stunned. Then 50,000 voices cry out in unison. This is it. The celebration of celebrations. Up there with World Cup Victories and Moon Landings. It's really happening. Guns n' Roses are back!
Axl Rose wastes no time in bee-lining it up the front of stage ramp, and takes his trademark stance, foot on the monitor, beaming like a child in a Disney Land advert, beneath his red bandana and American Football top. My god, it's 1992. The illusion is only betrayed by the man's size upgrade, dreadlocks, fine-tuned voice and of course, this new cast of characters.
'It's So Easy', 'Mr. Brownstone' and 'Live and Let Die' follow in quick-fire succession. The band are immaculately tight. Perhaps this is the problem. Slash and his old lot, for all their glory, were a ramshackle bunch live, at the best of times. That was part of the charm, surely. These new people are technically superb musicians, and the 3 guitarists juggle Slash's solos note for note, but it's missing the soul that made them so much more special than the rest of the late eighties hard rock crop.
This is going through the motions on a big scale, and it's a feeling I can only liken to sleeping with an ex-partner. You've both moved on, and the magic is not there now - it's out of context. It's all a bit weird. Regrettable, jeopardising those cherished memories of the good times. Well, that's until they kick into 'Think About You', the one you always skipped on your Appetite CD. But wait a minute - it sounds bloody good! Better than it did originally. At last, on a song that the old band never played live, the new boys are coming out of their shells, and showing us that they have a sound of their own. It's post-modern with a funky edge and almost Matt Bellamy-esque guitar tones.
Having found their feet and earned our acceptance, the band throw themselves headlong into the rest of the set, which is nothing less than blistering. 'You Could Be Mine' outclasses any previous live verson, and now they are more relaxed, the transcribed solos give way to some impressive, playful improvisation.
Rose is, unsurprisingly, in excellent spirits. "Look at all these f**king people!", he laughs, before congratulating us for discounting the no-show rumours.
How we rejoice when that legendary confrontational spirit emerges. Past midnight, they have only played half the set, but the promotors and city council want them offstage, because it is improper to enjoy oneself at such an hour amongst a large public gathering, don't you know.
"I didn't come all the way to England to be told to go home by some asshole!", fires Rose [referring to festival organiser Melvin Benn], "Tell you what - I don't want to be accused of inciting a riot, but if you stay here, we'll stay, and we'll see what happens." For a moment, there is an uncomfortable air of confrontation. Afterall, this sort of thing hasn't happened for nearly a decade. Live outdoor music events are now slick, respectable affairs. Axl's ear to ear grin suggests that he's missed all this as much as we have, and grown men are crying with joy.
As it happens, the council agrees to extend the festival's licence so the band can play on. Not so much as a gesture of good nature, rather that a riot could prove rather expensive. So Guns n' Roses go down as the only band in history to mess with fearsome promotors Mean Fiddler and emerge victorious. What an amazing night this is turning out to be.
'Knocking on Heaven's Door' is restored to its reggae roots, although without the "I'll sing one then you sing one" bits, it's a little flat. New songs 'Madagascar' and 'Chinese Democracy', however, showcase the new band in their full glory, complete with post-modern/ sequencer sheen and a fresh, soulful quality to Axl's voice.
As the dying strains of 'Paradise City' ring out, the truth is well and truly out there. It may not be life as we know it, but there is certainly life after Slash. I have been converted. Shame on me for my initial doubts. Can't wait to catch them again.
Let's meet the band...
Buckethead (guitar): A disturbing figure with an expressionless white-painted face and a KFC bucket on his head, this man has fast fingers and looks like an undead Kevin Shields from Primal Scream. He even gets a solo spot, where he pulls off a dazzling, yet surreal 'nunchukka spinning' and robotic dancing display.
Robin Finck (guitar): Formerly of Nine Inch Nails, this odd looking but strangely endearing character looks like he'd be more at home in the Marilyn Manson band. Gothed up to the eyeballs with tight one-piece zipped up suit, the tall, skinny Finck struts around the stage with style and grace, and his playing is phenominal, whether it's sleezy blues soloing or weaving futuristic sci-fi noise.
Richard Fortus (guitar): The newest and youngest addition, and the only human-looking guitarist, Fortus is Izzy Stradlin on speed, with the stonesey vibe, chopping his telecaster like a man possessed by Keith Richards.
Tommy Stinson (bass): The only let-down of the new band, Stinson is invisible, save for his black and white checkered suit. Must think he's in Robby Williams' band.
Brain (drums): Not exceptional, but definitely more Adler than Sorum.
Dizzy Reed (Keyboards): The only other member besides Rose to play with the old band. Dizzy is obviously so far under Axl's thumb, that he is sporting the same silly dreadlocks as his master.
The full set list was:
'Welcome To The Jungle'
'It's So Easy'
'Live And Let Die'
'Think About You'
'You Could Be Mine'
'Sweet Child O' Mine'
'Knockin' On Heaven's Door'
'Out Ta Get Me'
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