During their original superstar phase in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Guns N’ Roses never played Milwaukee, opting instead for the massive amphitheater of Alpine Valley in 1988 and a two-nighter in ’91. But Tuesday night wasn’t guitar god Slash’s first visit to the Bradley Center. Back in August of 2000, before BMO Harris wedged itself into the name of the venue, Slash’s Snakepit rolled into town as the support act for AC/DC’s Stiff Upper Lip tour. Slash was a commanding presence onstage as always, but any of his fans who showed up early enough to catch that opening set were hoping deep down to hear some GN’R tunes. A few years later, he found his way back into the mainstream via the Scott Weiland-fronted supergroup Velvet Revolver, but the idea of Slash being relegated to playing clubs and short guitar solos inside Stone Temple Pilots covers never sat well. No one ever embodied stadium-size rock any better than Slash.
Meanwhile, following Slash’s departure from GN’R in 1996, Axl Rose soldiered on with the band’s naming rights, cycling through guitarists while the promised follow-up to 1991’s Use Your Illusion albums became one of rock’s most mythical punchlines. By the time Chinese Democracy finally arrived in 2008, nobody gave a shit about GN’R anymore. Rose persisted in denying the possibility of a reunion with the classic lineup for a few more years, but clearly there was only one route to notoriety available to him. The Not In This Lifetime… Tour isn’t a full-on reunion; long-suffering guitarist Richard Fortus has played second fiddle to the likes of Buckethead, Bumblefoot, and DJ Ashba in GN’R since 2002, remaining in the slot previously filled by Izzy Stradlin, for the time being at least. Drummer Frank Ferrer also retains his seat, although the band did invite classic-era drummer Steven Adler onstage as a guest at a handful of 2016 dates. Begun in April of last year, the tour stands currently as the fifth-highest-grossing tour of all time.
Call it an inevitable cash-grab if you will; most fans have been clamoring for this and only this ever since the ’90s. The Bradley Center wasn’t exactly stuffed to the rafters for this Tuesday-nighter, though, suggesting that perhaps the buzz is running out despite pervasive rave reviews. Could Axl still hit the high notes? It’s a more subjective question than it seems; quite frequently he sounded like he was holding back in order to preserve what’s left of his vocal cords for key moments. He would often disappear from the stage during instrumental jam sections, presumably to guzzle tea or perform some other voice-preservation ritual. Yes, he could usually reach the necessary heights, but most of the richness and clarity of his heyday is long gone from his singing, similarly to AC/DC’s Brian Johnson. Both men are essentially caricatures of their former glory, but you have to respect them for risking a complete loss of voice in service of their beloved tunes.
Did it even matter what condition Rose’s voice was in? Not really. He remains an energetic frontman, if understandably less confrontational at age 55 than he was in his 20s and 30s. There was very little banter other than the occasional platitude and brief shout-out to his bandmates. The show was destined to boil down to whether or not Slash still had the chops that made him famous. Undeniably, he did. Time after time he wowed us with his inimitable mixture of technical precision and intuitive melodic sensibility. Witnessing this man wail away into oblivion is one of rock’s purest pleasures, especially in the context of the classics he helped create in the first place. Truth be told, we could’ve handled a couple more standalone epic Slash solos in lieu of the smattering of Chinese Democracy tracks.
Capping a barrage of fast, upbeat favorites to start the show, the band threw itself into an extended intro to “Double Talkin’ Jive,” which culminated in a Slash guitar solo fiery and flashy enough to justify whatever ticket price one may have paid to see it. Throughout the night, there would be scripted but loose musical departures with the single goal in mind of showing off the dude in the top hat whose eyes we never see. While he doled out his iconic leads in hits like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “November Rain” note for note, the most riveting passages of the show were his more spontaneous creations. Although the slow middle section of “Estranged” was a bit clunky, the climax was phenomenal, giving Fortus a chance to show off his prowess as well. He and Slash traded leads often throughout the night, collaborating on an interesting instrumental rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” which led to an awkward transition into the coda of “Layla” for some reason.
The band wasn’t at all shy about playing covers throughout the show’s three hours and fifteen minutes—most head-scratchingly, “Wichita Lineman,” in tribute to the recently deceased Glen Campbell, who made the Jimmy Webb tune famous. It actually wasn’t bad. Perhaps most moving was a late-set rendition of “Black Hole Sun,” very faithful to Soundgarden’s original and oozing with emotion. Bassist Duff McKagan had his moment in the spotlight with a blazing take on the Misfits’ “Attitude,” but it was a shame that none of his originals from the classic GN’R canon made it into the setlist.
Also absent were the group’s most controversial songs. The profane juvenilia of “Get In The Ring” hasn’t exactly held up well, and the detestable “One In A Million” would be enough to end the career of any modern band, and justifiably so.
Or would it? Rose has gotten away with casual misogyny throughout his career, and the band’s catalog is riddled with politically incorrect moments. For the sake of expensive nostalgia, it’s as if GN’R has essentially been grandfathered into acceptability—but has the Trump era emboldened the next generation of sleaze-rock? Is anyone reading this an expert on today’s premier mainstream bands? Are they keeping the commercial airwaves PC? We’re too busy to do that kind of research, but it’s a safe bet that even if there’s another budding clique of longhaired party animals on the verge of breaking through, they don’t have a Slash to justify their existence.