The crowd for Guns N’ Roses show at Denver’s Mile High Stadium on Aug. 2. (Dylan Owens, The Know)
Since before I can remember, Guns N’ Roses has reminded me of the bowling alley.
It’s not just the fact that Axl Rose and Slash look like two dudes you’d find propped against a Harley Davidson in the parking lot of your local alley. (Even at 55 and 52, respectively, they still look like they could steal your beer money.) Or that Slash’s glossy, color-burst Les Paul evokes the slick oil-on-wood aesthetic of the lanes. It’s that they both conjure up memories of that certain late-1980s, early-1990s era when bowling alleys were, like the mall or a bar, a town commons — a place to park your Camaro, kick up your heels and blast Guns N’ Roses between frames.
Since those landline days, the fate of the band and the bowling alley has followed a similar trajectory. Once popular, Guns N’ Roses trended towards the gutter in the late ’90s, settling into a nostalgic corner of the heart for those who remember when the boys from Hollywood — as they’re still introduced on stage to this day — were the hottest ticket in town. (Even after Slash was kicked out of the band a little over two decades ago.)
But as you can see at Crown Lanes on the right night, nostalgia never goes out of style. Hence, Guns N’ Roses’ Not In This Lifetime Tour, which brings original members Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan together on stage for the first time since 1993’s Use Your Illusion Tour. Now in its 16th month, the circuit is the highest-grossing tour of 2017 and, if Wikipedia is to be believed, the tenth highest grossing rock tour of all time.
On Wednesday evening, Denver got its chance to see what the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of fuss was about. Including an opening set from alt-country troubadour Sturgill Simpson, the evening packed nearly five hours of music. Awful “Chinese Democracy” track after beautiful Soundgarden cover (a powerful late-set rendition of “Black Hole Sun”), GNR’s setlist alone swelled to 30 songs, tent-poled near the beginning, middle and end by the band’s smash hits: “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Paradise City.”
As economical as that sounds, fans probably could have done more with less. Many in the two-thirds full stadium took a 30-minute seat break for a stretch of slower ballads like “This I Love,” “Yesterdays” and “Coma.” Sure, the band doesn’t come around that often, but the bloat was blatant.
One potential reason for the tour’s record-setting grosses, aside from its insanely priced merch (the $ 40 T-shirts were par for the course; $ 500 leather jackets, less so), is the tour’s production. A handful of fireworks arrays aside, the Not In This Lifetime Tour was low-key in comparison to the onslaught of pyrotechnics and special effects Metallica trotted out two months prior, and downright tame compared to most arena pop shows. But seeing Rose rifle through a half-dozen outfits — including a snakeskin jacket and an ice-cube sized diamond ring for “November Rain,” beautifully adorned on the side-stage Jumbotrons by the caress of CGI rose petals — it’s obvious the money was well-spent elsewhere.
Much has been made about the band’s age, an inevitable topic for a group that, like the Rolling Stones, epitomized youth culture in their long-since-gone heyday. A teleprompter between the speaker wedges on stage helped Rose stay on lyric, but couldn’t help him hit all the right notes. Rose hit the stage on Wednesday sounding like he was already 20 songs deep, creaking his way through “It’s So Easy.” Three songs later, he spouted the first lines of “Welcome to the Jungle” with a conservative halt, a far cry from its original wildcat rasp. But as the sun lowered, so did his inhibitions. By the time he got to “Used To Love Her” an hour and change later, he’d found his sweet spot — by no means lithe, but more than recognizable.
Behind his signature aviators and an inky mop of curls, Slash — “from uncharted territory,” as Rose introduced him — is still as hard to parse as ever, and as routinely incredible. He is the re-animated Gregor Clegane of Guns N’ Roses, to borrow from “Game of Thrones.” He only opened his mouth once — to sing through a vocoder — instead communicating through his army of guitars. (Even his acoustic guitar was fused onto an electric.) Mapping out visionary constellations on the fretboard, he was eerily calm, as if created solely to tease out arpeggiated sweeps and work teases to “The Godfather” theme song into his solos, as he did late in the night.
In an open area to the side of the pit, the riffs scored slow dances and drunk dudes getting booted from the show. Both were appropriate: For better or worse, Guns N’ Roses left no affiliated musical memory unexamined on Wednesday. The band captured the essence that one of its (again, very expensive) T-shirts still represents — not carpe diem, but carpe noctem — while outstaying its welcome just enough to remind fans of those things better left in the dust of your attic, under that copy of “Chinese Democracy” and, yeah, those bowling shoes you never use.
Due to Guns N’ Roses’ restrictive photo policy, we did not send a photographer to cover this concert.