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Review: Guns N' Roses ablaze at Ford Field tour kickoff

The reunited hard rock group tore through a two-and-a-half hour show, and even showed up early

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Not only did the reunited Guns N’ Roses tear through a 24-song, two-and-a-half hour barn burner of a set to kick off its “Not in This Lifetime” tour in front of a hot crowd of 41,000 rock and roll fans at Ford Field on Thursday, but the group opened the concert by showing up on stage two minutes prior to its advertised start time.

Guns N’ Roses, early? Not in this lifetime, indeed.

But there they were, hitting the stage at a very un-GNR-like 9:43 p.m., which is like the middle of the morning for Axl Rose.

Clearly there’s a lot riding on this tour, which pits Rose with core original GNR members Slash and Duff McKagen, and the gesture showed the group is taking business matters seriously and is not going to flame out in the spectacular fashion many are expecting.

Matters of timing aside, Thursday’s thunderous concert showed that in 2016, Guns N’ Roses can still deliver a mighty wallop.

With a setlist that bounced between “Appetite for Destruction” and the “Use Your Illusion” albums (with a few questionable stops at “Chinese Democracy” in between), GNR proved it has some magic left in it, even if the band members’ interpersonal relations are strained to the point where Axl and Duff never discussed that they’d both be wearing “Detroit: Where the Weak Are Killed and Eaten” T-shirts on stage. (They were different styles, at least.)

Squint, and it was the Guns N’ Roses of yore: Axl darting across the stage like he’s trying to up his Fitbit numbers, doing that side-shuffle-in-place move, and looking like a demon serpent while howling into his microphone; Slash, virtually unchanged in appearance from the “Appetite for Destruction” days, ripping solos in a sleeveless black T-shirt, black leather pants, a black top hat and mirrored sunglasses; and Duff, bass slung low (and adorned with a Prince symbol), somehow looking 10 pounds leaner than he did in 1987 and still every bit as cool. Guitarist Richard Fortus, drummer Frank Ferrer, keyboardist Dizzy Reed and keyboardist Melissa Reese rounded out the group.

It did take a while for things to get rolling, and Axl probably could have used a snooze alarm or two ahead of his early call time. It took the frontman several songs to hit his groove on Thursday, and he appeared winded during opener “It’s So Easy,” like he might not make it through the night, let alone the tour.

Turns out he was just easing into the evening: He was better during follow-up “Mr. Brownstone,” and when he shrieked “Do you know where you are?” during an electrifying “Welcome to the Jungle” two songs later, he was fully back in Axl mode.

“Estranged,” one of the pompous epics off of “Use Your Illusion,” was where the full band first started to click, while “You Could Be Mine,” set against a backdrop of pyrotechnics and flames, roared with a seething, snarling, bitter energy. (Introducing it, Axl called it a love song, then bragged “it’s called being facetious” as the song started, like he was locked in a game with himself.)

“Coma,” with Slash rattling off riffs like shotgun blasts, was like a dirty bomb, bringing a sense of danger back to this new version of GNR rather than the theme park ride it threatened to be. Meanwhile, “Out ta Get Me” ended with Axl practically beating his chest, bellowing “take that one to your Detroit heart!” in a moment of triumph.

That Detroit heart was treated to a gritty cover of the Stooges’ “Raw Power” during a solo showcase by Duff, while Slash performed the theme from “The Godfather” as well as an instrumental version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” (alongside Fortus) to help fill breaks where Axl was off-stage changing up wardrobes. (At one point Axl even swapped out sunglasses, from aviators to wayfarers.)

Axl was playing nice at the beginning of the night but there were glimpses of his old cantankerous self, first when he chastised the food options in the city (“everything here is (expletive) fried,” he said, saying he should invest in vegetable oil in Detroit) and later wondering aloud if the crowd was going to sing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with him (“are you gonna help me out, or is it, ‘No, (expletive) you, Axl?’”).

But there were some warm moments as well; during “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” the video screens caught Axl looking over at Slash not like a bandmate or a co-worker but like a fan, in awe of his Godlike guitar skills.

Many in Ford Field felt the same, and seeing Slash back with Guns N’ Roses struck an indelible image. The times where Axl would walk over to Slash and lean on his shoulder were moments many in the audience thought they’d never get the chance to witness; you’ll remember Axl Rose didn’t even bother to show up when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. That’s how unlikely a tour like this seemed just a few years ago.

However it was able to happen, it happened. “Do you know where you are?” On Thursday, everyone seemed right where they should be.

Set list:

1. It’s So Easy

2. Mr. Brownstone

3. Chinese Democracy

4. Welcome to the Jungle

5. Double Talkin’ Jive

6. Estranged

7. Live and Let Die

8. Rocket Queen

9. You Could Be Mine

10. Raw Power (Stooges cover with Duff on vocals)

11. This I Love

12. Civil War

13. Coma

14. Theme from ‘The Godfather’ (Slash)

15. Sweet Child O’ Mine

16. Better

17. Out ta Get me

18. Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd cover)

19. November Rain

20. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

21. Nighttrain

Encore

22. Don’t Cry

23. The Seeker

24. Paradise City