Honolulu Marathon weekend extended this year to Aloha Stadium (usually Great Aloha Run territory), with a pair of marathon rock concerts. On Saturday night, Guns N’ Roses topped the Eagles’ performance of a night earlier with a 3-hour, 24-minute show that sent its fervent fans home fulfilled.
Maybe the band was atoning for taking 30 years to make its Hawaii debut. GNR played a little longer set than they’ve been playing on the Not in This Lifetime Tour, which wrapped here after a globe-spanning 20 months.
Best of all, those 200-plus minutes were stuffed with music — great music. Singer Axl Rose spoke a little and led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to the son of late Hawaii surfer Andy Irons — Axel, reportedly named after Rose, turned 8 Saturday and the Andy Irons Foundation was a charitable partner of the event — but otherwise the show was all about the songs — specifically, the guitars.
Few bands give as much of the spotlight to their guitarist as they do to their singer. Then again, few bands have guitarists as skilled and incendiary as Slash, who rejoined Rose in GNR for this tour along with bassist Duff McKagan, reuniting three-fifths of the band’s heyday lineup. The three hadn’t played together in about two decades, and that’s two decades the band was not really GNR.
Slash offered a reminder of this early, shredding through “It’s So Easy” and especially “Mr. Brownstone” from the band’s landmark 1987 debut, “Appetite for Destruction.”
Two songs later, just four songs into the show, the band gave a clue as to how the evening would go, unleashing “Welcome to the Jungle,” one of their signature tunes, much earlier than expected. Most bands save such show-stoppers for late in the show, when crowd energy might be flagging, or even the encore, but GNR sprinkled their biggest songs throughout. Even “Sweet Child O’ Mine” showed up not long after the midway point, perhaps taking away some of its juice and making it not quite the tour de force you might expect, though Rose’s lyrics and vocals were no less wistful, nostalgic and vulnerable and Slash’s solos every bit as lyrical as on the record, the qualities that have made the song a hard rock classic.
With its multiple solos, “Sweet Child” might be the ultimate recorded showcase for Slash’s guitar prowess, but as impressive as he is on that, Saturday’s performance shows even “Sweet Child” can do him no justice. Besides his many solos featured on GNR’s songs, the set provided myriad opportunities to feature his talents, including an astounding transition between “Coma” and “Sweet Child” that put his full powers on display, taking his playing from a ramble to a screech, and a thrilling duet with rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”
Serving up “Jungle” so early did serve some purpose. The cameras feeding the three massive screens zoomed in on Slash’s nimble-fingered fretwork and Rose got to show that he can still shriek as well as Young Axl did. He also got to flash his trademark “serpentine” dance. It’s not quite the same as it was 30 years ago, but how many of us move as well at 56 as we did at 26? It was nowhere near an embarrassment and gave the fans one of the things they needed to see.
As much focus as is given to Rose and Slash, it’s easy to ignore the rest of the band. McKagan and drummer Frank Ferrer provided a sturdy foundation throughout, and the seven-piece crew — rounded out by keyboardists Dizzy Reed and Melissa Reese — were impressively cohesive for a band that’s been together less than two years.
McKagan also took a turn at the mic, singing GNR’s remake of the Misfits’ “Attitude” from “The Spaghetti Incident?,” their album of cover songs. That was the only track from that release to see the stage Saturday, but among the highlights were the more than a half-dozen covers the band slipped in. Besides Wings’ “Live and Let Die” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which got the stands shaking, there was “Slither” by Velvet Revolver, the band Slash and McKagan formed in the early 2000s with former GNR drummer Matt Sorum and since-deceased Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland.
GNR paid homage to another fallen grunge hero with a fine performance of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” Rose not straying too far from the late Chris Cornell’s vocals but still managing to bring his own style.
Beyond the cover versions, GNR also incorporated excerpts from classic songs into their hits. When a grand piano was rolled out for the inevitable “November Rain,” Rose opened with the iconic piano coda from Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla,” and some rambling guitar from the Allman Brothers’ “Melissa” kicked off the encore-opening “Patience.”
Midway through the encore, leading up to “Don’t Cry,” Rose hinted at the band’s future, which has been somewhat up in the air, given their rocky history.
“I want to thank the band,” Rose said, “that I’m sure hates me. … We hope to keep this thing running, so we’ll see what happens next.”
GNR went out in a blaze of glory, with fireworks and confetti enhancing the anthemic “Paradise City,” off “Appetite.”
Late-comers missed local opening act Kings of Spade, who delivered a rocking nearly hour-long set proving them worthy of their spot on the bill.
Hawaii-born singer KC has a powerful voice — she tackled “Piece of My Heart” uncowed by Janis Joplin’s legacy — and was an amiable presence with her between-song storytelling. The best was how her career started, as a bartender at Anna Bananas, coerced to sing at open-mic night when there was no one signed up. Asked by the house band for a song she knew, she offered up … “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and sounded good enough to give a singing career a shot. Saturday’s gig might be the boost needed by the band — guitarist Jesse Savio, drummer Matt Kato and bassist Tim Corker round out the quartet and shone brightly, particularly on “Strange Bird.”