After the COVID-19 pandemic postponed Guns N’ Roses’ 2021 Tour which was originally slated to begin in Milwaukee, WI on July 4, 2020, the legendary hard rock band pushed it back a full year. Once Summerfest rescheduled their week-long July schedule, re-tooling the festival to take place over several weekends in September, they revealed Guns N’ Roses would close out the festival.
Guns N’ Roses — including original members Axl Rose as the lead vocalist, Duff McKagan as lead bassist and Slash as the band’s lead guitarist — took the stage Sept. 19, after an opening performance by Mammoth, a new band founded by Wolfgang Van Halen, son of Eddie Van Halen.
Right off the bat, it was clear Axl’s vocal cords are not what they once were. He had little ability to hit any of his famous high notes, let alone hold them as long as he once could.
McKagan’s voice and ability on the guitar were as on point as ever and Slash, speaking objectively, still played like the greatest guitarist to ever live. Slash was given no less than five guitar solos throughout the show and what he could do on the guitar as a 56-year-old man with a pacemaker was nothing short of superhuman.
One thing Axl excelled at throughout the night was the sheer number of outfit changes. Anytime Slash had a guitar solo, Axl would disappear from the stage, only to return a minute or two later wearing bigger rings, a different black t-shirt and a series of wide-brimmed hats.
No moment in the night deserved more praise than the band’s performance of November Rain. Axl’s performance on the mic and on the piano were far and away his best of the night. The lower range of the song allowed for a much more accurate rendition of the song than any other on the setlist. And as always, Slash’s guitar solo — potentially the greatest guitar solo in any rock song — was as impressive as it sounds on the record.
Watching these aged performers play some of my favorite songs ever recorded made me begin to wonder. I thought about how this life must be impossible to escape. Throughout their lives, they all struggled with drug and alcohol addictions. But as they have grown older and become sober, there must be no stimulus as sensational as performing live. To hear decades of fans of all ages screaming your name has to give performers more of a rush than almost anything else in the world. But when does it become too much?
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At what point in your performing career do you decide to hang up the style and look to which you have been bound to for decades? Whether it’s Axl Rose at the age of 59 still wearing rings the size of baseballs, a red bandana, bedazzled cowboy boots and a scarf hanging from his belt, or Angus Young still dressing like an Australian school boy at the age of 66, clinging to a character he created as a 20-something rockstar must be exhausting, or so I thought, as I watched the spectacle live.
My mother had a much more positive take, believing dressing like they did in 1985 was a way to keep them feeling young and as virile as they once were. This persona is all they have to latch onto as they look back at their glory days. Even though Axl cannot sing like he once could, he can still embody the persona of Axl Rose, one of the greatest singers of all time.
After I heard my mother’s take, I viewed the performers through a different lens. What I saw was a stage filled with people who looked like they were genuinely happy. They did not look like they were out there to make headlines or earn more money. Rather, they looked like a group of old friends who had patched up their issues and were performing because it’s what they love to do.
So maybe Axl will not be hanging up his patented red bandana, or Slash his top hat. And maybe they cannot perform as perfectly as they once could, but as long as they tour and as long as they enjoy it, fans will continue to scoop up tickets as quickly as possible to see a truly incredible performance by one of the greatest rock bands of all time.