There must be a German word for something that is both a little silly and a little awesome. For the past 20 years, the lame nightclub act still using the name Guns N’ Roses was merely the former: A ridiculous shadow of its former self, the “Axl plus hired guns” lineup ran through the group’s standards with all the conviction and appeal of a GNR cover band. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to make a living by trading on your once-great band’s musical output—it’s called the state fair circuit, and it pays the bills for lots of acts who no longer feel the creative itch but want to put on a show—but there was something unseemly about seeing such a legendary band devolve into the Axl Rose Cabaret Show. It didn’t help matters that the acrimony between the other founding members of Guns N’ Roses was so public, let alone that the decade-plus wait for Chinese Democracy became an easy punchline for the dangers of superstar megalomania. (Even at the height of their success, Rose’s diva behavior was appalling, which is the kind of thing that comes back to haunt you when falling out of the public’s good graces.)
But along comes the Not In This Lifetime… Tour, which finally restores that missing element of awesomeness to the Guns N’ Roses equation. The return of the founding members of the group (save for Izzy Stradlin and long-disavowed original drummer Steven Adler) is the kind of feel-good “burying the hatchet” narrative that makes fans feel like something near to their hearts has been restored to its proper place in the universe. I went to the concert Friday night at Soldier Field in Chicago, along with A.V. Club Editorial Coordinator Becca James, and a couple of unexpected things happened: First, the band not only started on time, but 15 minutes early; and second, we really enjoyed a Guns N’ Roses concert in 2016. I really didn’t think that second one was possible.
So what made it so entertaining? It certainly wasn’t the fans. If you’re wondering who attends a GNR concert these days, it’s pretty close to the stereotype you have in your head. White people in their 40s and 50s, many in from the suburbs, who pulled their old concert tees out of mothballs and decided to make a night of nostalgia as close to a time machine journey to 1992 as possible. Picture the kinds of college bros who crush beer cans on their foreheads and girls who sit on their boyfriends’ shoulders whooping at festivals, and add a couple decades. It reminded me of Joan Cusack’s perfect line from Grosse Pointe Blank, about attending her high school reunion: “It was just as if everyone had swelled.”
A lot of the people around us were, to put it diplomatically, objectively terrible. The guy next to me had a Tourette’s-like habit of screaming “Are you kidding me?!” every time the band launched into another song, or Axl exhorted the crowd to cheer, or even when someone on stage would mosey a few steps to the left, really. It was as if existence itself were some sort of impossible miracle he couldn’t wrap his mind around and had to continually scream to God herself to confirm this beautiful truth, because he feared it might all dissolve in a Matrix-esque digital blip the next instant. Which is annoying, but not as much as when he felt the need to involve me in his declamations. When Slash transitioned from a guitar solo into the opening lick of “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” my neighbor grabbed me by the shoulders. “Are! You! Kidding! Me?!?!” he feverishly shrieked, spittle flying into my pores from his demented visage. I can still see it when I close my eyes. Three different people spilled beer on me, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that two of them reacted to the realization of what they had done by raising up the devil horns and shouting, “Yeah!” I didn’t know Miss Manners had changed the rules for spilling on another person to a celebratory satanic symbol. (This probably says more about my general stupidity regarding social codes than it does them.)
But not everyone was so bad. The people in front of us were clearly having the time of their lives. A husband and wife duo, there with a few friends, couldn’t stop taking selfies and yelling “Guns N’ Roses!”—which led me to theorize they had fallen in love at an Appetite For Destruction Tour date, and this was a reminder of everything good in their lives. At one point—I shit you not—he lifted her several inches in the air (I guess sitting on shoulders is out of the question after a certain age), so she could pull up her shirt to flash her breasts at the stage. Becca and I stared at them, then at each other, then back at them again. It was like going sightseeing in Rome and having the pope come out of the bathroom you’re waiting in line to use.
Still, I had a great time. And it had everything to do with the earnest performance Guns N’ Roses put on. It was pure nostalgia, true, but it was a transformative nostalgia, a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the passing of time, that felt like a defiant middle finger in the air to the aging and death awaiting all of us. When Axl ran across the stage to jump on the monitors mid-song, or when he changed outfits, or played the piano on “November Rain,” there was an undeniable air of resistance in the face of change, a visible testament to how it was possible—even if only for the duration of a concert—to reject the progression of life. The entire stadium projected itself backward in time, and partied like it was 1989.
The show was mostly a greatest-hits assemblage, with the odd deep cut making an appearance (“Coma,” “Double Talkin’ Jive”) and a few nods to the other members’ subsequent work (Duff played a couple of punk covers, Slash got to do some solo guitar noodling). There were even a few tracks from Chinese Democracy, and honestly, they didn’t sound as shitty live as they do on record, though they were also clearly from a different era of band composition. But the hits just kept coming, a reminder of how ubiquitous the band was during its heyday. I quickly realized I didn’t just know the obvious touchstones—“Paradise City,” “Welcome To The Jungle,” “You Could Be Mine”—I knew every damn song from those landmark albums, within five seconds of the opening riffs. Appetite is wall-to-wall great, as close as you can get to a flawless hard-rock album, and every track from it still thunders with almost embarrassing catharsis.
Even the lesser songs from Use Your Illusion felt resonant in the wayback-machine atmosphere of the concert. I’ve never before felt so rocked by “Estranged,” and likely never will be again, but damned if Becca and I weren’t singing along that night. I didn’t even know I knew the words. (For the life of me, I can’t remember them now.) That’s the power of a great concert. It makes the silly sublime and the ridiculous raw, and the outdated and cheesy becomes timely and resonant, for those precious few hours in which it’s happening. It’s all a bit goofy, just like the crowd dressed up like they were in their youth, and it’s fair to cop to the dangerous sway of nostalgia in popular culture at large. But it’s also fair to admit that everyone needs a win now and then, and for the people who paid to see Guns N’ Roses kick some ass on Friday night, that was a win. The world may have passed them and their musical tastes by, but for a brief moment, everyone deserves to feel cool again. Except me. I had beer spilled all over me.