Guns N' Roses Live Concert Review in Detroit, Michigan U.S.A. Aug 8 2021
"I saw Guns N’ Roses play Detroit and survived. Probably. " By special contributor D’Anne Witkowski
Aug. 8, 2021. Comerica Park. Detroit, Michigan. Guns N’ fuckin’ Roses. 20,000 fans and the COVID-19 Delta variant. Let’s rock.
A lot of my favorite bands are old. I’ve never seen Guns N’ Roses live. So when I saw that they were coming to Detroit, I thought, “Well, this might be my last chance,” and bought tickets. This was months before the Delta variant was tearing through the country on its own tour, mind you. But I figured, it’s outside. I’ll wear a mask. Surely a lot of people will be wearing masks. It’ll be fine.
And a lot of people were wearing masks. If you consider 6 or 7, counting me and my twin sister, “a lot.” I brought a mask with me, but I bought an orange GNR mask at the merch stand for $20. More practical and much cheaper than a $50 t-shirt, a $75 long sleeve, or $100 hoodie.
GNR posted a really cool Detroit-specific Robocop image to Twitter prior to the show, and I thought, “Okay, if they have this on a shirt, I’m buying it.” But the merch stand, which was outside in the parking lot, did not have said shirt.
But then, prior to the show a graphic on the giant LED screens flanking the stage showed the image along with something about “exclusive merchandise here,” which made me think maybe they did have the shirt somewhere. I finally decided to go look for it, but as soon as my sister and I stood up to go, GNR took the stage.
The show was far from sold out, so my sister and I moved to the top row of our section, which got us away from everybody so we could remove our masks. We watched as GNR launched into “It’s So Easy,” from Appetite for Destruction, one of the best hard rock records ever made.
In total GNR played two songs from their lesser-known record Chinese Democracy, the title track, which was their third song after “Mr. Brownstone,” and “Better” four songs later. They also played “Slither” by Velvet Revolver, a band that I never got into. I assumed that it must be off of Democracy and I just didn’t recognize it. Because, admittedly, there are a lot of forgettable songs on that album. There were some people who knew all the words to every song, but people tended to sit down or go get a beer during any song that wasn’t a recognizable big hit.
People went nuts when, six songs in, they played “Welcome To the Jungle,” a song immortalized on new merch in 80’s-esque puffy black lettering on a yellow trucker cap you could probably buy at a Flying J. Honestly, it looked like something that a fan might have made themselves back in the day. Speaking of which, a woman several rows ahead of us was wearing a one-of-a-kind airbrushed shirt with roses and a revolver that included her name, “Bridget,” underneath, which transported me back to my days as a teenager shopping for bootleg band shirts at the Dixieland Flea Market.
So, yeah, I should probably address Axl’s singing. It was, well, not great. But he was trying so hard! Like, A for effort, but maybe a C- in execution if I’m being generous. But it was still awesome to see him sing live. And I get that when he wrote his biggest hits he was a young man. And now he’s an old man. And young men and old men don’t tend to have the same vocal range or sound. But there were some moments — ok, a lot of moments — that were really rough. I suspected at first that they chose the set list based on what Axl could sing, but it became clear that was probably not the case. But the man seemed, dare I say, happy? Like he was having a good time? At the height of Guns N’ Roses Axl Rose seemed tightly wound and ready to snap at any moment. A very angry and unhappy person, despite his success. But that Axl seems to be gone, and while I miss his voice, I don’t miss him.
Seeing Slash play was truly awesome. One of my favorite guitarists, though admittedly only in the context of Guns N’ Roses. I never got into any of his other projects. I am partial to metal and while GNR aren’t metal, they have a special place in my personal musical history. Slash looks the same except with more wrinkles and chin acreage. I often find myself marveling that he was able to play at all during GNR’s early career, let alone so well, considering how strung out he was on drugs. To the best of my knowledge he is not on drugs now, which may or may not explain the approximately 4 hour and 37 minute guitar solo he performed during the set.
Slash’s solo was awesome for the first few minutes, but after awhile I found myself people watching, scanning the audience for the various band shirts people were wearing, the variety illustrating GNR’s wide appeal. I saw AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Megadeth, Metallica, ZZ Top, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Iron Maiden, Gojira, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Tesla. I also saw a guy in an Ozzy shirt urinating while standing next to my car in the parking lot after the show. After he zipped up, he and his friends busted open a bag of Doritos, which they tucked into while standing around the puddle of piss. Rock and roll.
All photo' credit's D’Anne Witkowski
The vast majority of people in band t-shirts at the show were wearing Guns N’ Roses shirts, myself included. I know this is apparently uncool, but I am too old to be cool and too old to care. I not only wore a GNR shirt, I wore my shirt that says, “Live and Let Die With COVID 45,” a shirt that was available from the official GNR online merch store for a short time after Trump toured a mask factory without a mask during his disastrous COVID-19 response. The song playing in the background? Yeah. Very fitting.
During the show, Axl changed his t-shirt no less than five times. Poor Slash, however, was apparently only allotted one white t-shirt, which was completely transparent with sweat by the show’s end.
I should mention that my twin sister is not a Guns N’ Roses fan, but she allows me to drag her to shows because she is a good person and feels bad for me that I don’t have many friends who will go to hard rock and metal shows with me. And it gives her an excuse to eat weed gummies. The highlight of the show for her was when Duff McKagan took the lead on a cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges in honor of Detroit’s music legacy and Duff’s love for punk. It was awesome. She had this Stooges album on CD in high school and I remember listening to it and thinking Iggy Pop was singing, “And now I wanna be adored.” Duff looks good. He’s aged, of course, but he’s lean and muscular and basically a picture of what doing it right looks like when it comes to getting old.
Following this highlight was a lowlight, GNR’s new song “Absurd,” which is terrible. Apparently this song was written during the Chinese Democracy era and didn’t make the cut for the record. And if you’ve listened to the record, you know that the bar wasn’t that high. Would I like the song if it did not contain the lyrics, “Pussy full of maggots?” No. But that would make it slightly less awful. There’s a lot of hype about this first new song from GNR in 13 years, but if this is what the’ve got to offer, maybe we don’t need new GNR music? I mean, they’ve made one of the greatest rock records of all time. They’re never going to top that. And that’s okay.
“Civil War” followed and by then it was dark and there was a nice breeze. Sadly, this song is ever-timely since there’s always a war going on, but given how fucking awful things are politically right now, it felt especially apt. It’s one of the best and most important songs GNR has ever recorded. Even my wife likes it and the hardest she rocks is to The Eagles. I really don’t think the message that war is awful can ever be conveyed too many times. “Civil War” stands alongside great heavy songs about war like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” Iron Maiden’s “Afraid to Shoot Strangers,” and Megadeth’s “Peace Sells."
When “Sweet Child of Mine” started it was greeted with a wild frenzy that made the people who had started to trickle out during Slash’s guitar solo whirl around and stay put in the stadium. As it should.
But then “November Rain” started and perhaps people were like, “Ok, this song is really long and it’s past my bedtime,” or maybe people were by then painfully aware of the fact that Axl could not sing the song well. But the trickle of people leaving turned into a stream that just increased as the band played through “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” (which is better than the Bob Dylan original, yeah I said it) and “Nightrain.”
As an encore they did “Patience,” but at this point my sister had lost hers, and offered to go scout for the Robocop t-shirt. A few rows in front of me a woman in a white tank top with short messy hair raised her arms in the air, swaying from side to side as she sang along with her eyes closed. This song clearly meant a lot to her and I felt a little like I was spying on a private experience. Then again, I sat back feeling the cool night air and singing along, too, and totally knew where she was coming from.
At this point my sister sent me a text to say she’d found the t-shirt, but they only had XXL left, but I didn’t see this text because I was engrossed in the show. And even if I had, I wouldn’t have wanted an XXL. I wear a men’s small on a good day, a medium most of the time. The way I see it, I saved $50.
GNR closed with “Paradise City,” and the crowd rightfully went wild. Like, literally. The throngs of people streaming out to beat traffic stopped in their tracks, many lining up in the walkway behind me, dancing and belting out every word. One woman in a very short leopard print jumper was flailing and singing with such intensity she could’ve been speaking in tongues at a tent revival. It’s more likely that she was just very happy. And drunk.
Looking around I saw many people just like her, losing themselves in the experience of finally being at a live show again. It was clear that people needed this. I needed this. But it was also clear that I was probably sitting in the middle of a super spreader event. Which bummed me the fuck out because I don’t know what the fall will look like, but I fear that the concerts I have tickets for — Megadeth, Testament, In This Moment — might get cancelled.
It was fitting that the GNR show should end with “Oh, won't you please take me home?” No matter where people were heading back to, no one was headed to Paradise. That place exists only in a song for 6-7 minutes at a time. The real world is a pretty bleak place where you’ve got to scrape up as much joy as you can to get through. We’d all come for an infusion of some god damn rock and roll and we got it. And now we were ready to go home.
D'Anne Witkowski writes about music, politics, and social issues. She lives in Michigan with her wife and son. Follow her on Twitter @MamaDWitkowski.