So here’s the scene: It’s Saturday night and the tram driver points out that on the right, you can spend 12 minutes learning how to make chocolate. Or…“That structure on the left is Hersheypark Stadium,” he adds. “Guess what? Guns N’ Roses are here.”
It was a no-brainer to choose Guns N’ Roses. After all, the veteran group was performing their first live concert in 17 months — with Wolfgang Van Halen’s Mammoth WVH in tow — for their tour opener in Hershey, Pa.
First, the choice stage intro, which found the announcer bellowing, “Hello, Hershey! You wanted the best. Well, they couldn’t make it. Here’s what you get — from Hollywood, Calif., Guns N’ Roses!”
If they were working to shake off any rust from their downtime, it was hardly visible in the performance, which found the hard rock titans turning in a set that ran for nearly two and a half hours, doling out 20 choice cuts from their legendary catalog.
Frontman Axl Rose was in a playful mood, telling the near-capacity crowd, “We’re just trying to remember how we do this thing up here. Get back in the swing of things.”
He would carry that theme forward later in the night, slipping somewhat awkwardly into introducing the band, as his microphone was briefly turned off. “I’m new at this,” he quipped.
Running through the band intros, he paused when he got to a longtime bandmate, bassist/vocalist Duff McKagan. “On the bass, um, Duff. Yeah, that’s it!”
He took even longer to reveal the identity of Slash to the crowd. “See, I’m milking it,” he beamed, with his intro of the guitar legend.
But shades of ‘90s bad boy Rose were also in the air, with the notoriously cantankerous vocalist greeting the Hershey fans initially after the first three songs, “How you guys doing? My fellow political pandemic prisoners,” as his lead-in to “Welcome to the Jungle.”
He didn’t linger on the moment, instead leaving the music to do most of the talking — which is what you do when you’re Guns N’ Roses and have that body of work.
Watch Guns N’ Roses Perform ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ in Hershey, Pa. on July 31, 2021
But anyone hoping for some setlist changes was left mostly hanging, with the lone exception being the premiere of a fantastic, gritty, punked-up garage rock version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog by the Stooges. (McKagan took the vocal lead on the classic, plucked from the setlist playbook of his other band, Loaded.) It was good, clean fun watching McKagan and Slash become honorary Stooges for a moment to make a different kind of noise.
Appetite for Destruction, of course, figured heavily in the setlist, and deeper album cut “You’re Crazy,” always a crowd pleaser, delighted the Hershey crowd, with fans dancing with their hands in the air, singing every word. The moment would be reprised later in the set, as Rose encouraged the fans to join in on the Illusion-era “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” — something they were quite happy to oblige.
“Don’t it feel good to get out of the house a little?” he asked.
Rose himself seemed particularly energized, adding extra bits of mojo to the “Yow-za” at the end of “Mr. Brownstone,” while smiling and leaning on Slash as the band stormed through the raunch of the title track from Chinese Democracy.
And it was almost like vintage 1988 Axl was in the house, swinging and swaying back and forth, just as you’d hope he might. Vocally, he has to really reach for some of the notes these days, but he was in otherwise strong voice.
Instrumentally, Mckagan and Slash anchor the current version of Guns N’ Roses, stable since the initial reunion in 2016, and also featuring mainstays Dizzy Reed on keyboards, guitarist Richard Fortus, drummer Frank Ferrer and keyboardist/vocalist Melissa Reese. Both the Appetite and Use Your Illusion eras of GNR left a lot for the present day grouping to live up to, as memories hold a very specific vision.
No worries — they’re up for every ounce of that challenge, matching the relentless attitude and swagger of the old days. Fortus, in particular, is a real secret weapon — the guitarist (now in the lineup for nearly 20 years) has some real Izzy mojo with how he carries himself and collaborates with Slash to deliver the guitar parts faithfully, while still putting his own stamp on things.
Looking from fan to fan as the night progressed, it was clear the band was hitting the mark — lighting it up for every generation, including the young kid we saw with a mohawk air drumming to “You Could Be Mine.”
While some groups of their ilk are out just playing the hits, Guns N’ Roses continue to take a different tactic. They’ll give you the trusted warhorses you’re waiting for, but also, it’s refreshing that they go deep and aren’t afraid to get weird. You would think it would be a select few that would be stoked about Illusion cuts like “Estranged” and “Dead Horse,” but look left to right and you’ll find audience members faithfully mouthing along with every word.
Mammoth WVH made the night a doubleheader to remember with their rapid-fire, 50-minute opening set, converting numerous GNR fans who came through the door with only a passing knowledge of the group. “Holy shit,” was the reaction of one fan near us, midway through the band’s performance, only their third show to date — and their first in front of a large audience following two last-minute warm-up club gigs earlier in the week.
Wolfgang Van Halen was grinning ear to ear as he and the band tore through the initial moments of “Don’t Back Down,” with the crunchy riffing taking things in a heavy direction from the get-go, giving the GN’R crowd their first taste of what the group is all about.
While Van Halen recorded the entire Mammoth WVH album himself, playing all of the parts, he’s assembled an impressive lineup of players for the live version, joined by guitarists Frank Sidoris and Jon Jourdan, bassist Ronnie Ficarro and drummer Garrett Whitlock.
The chemistry and connection between the band members has been building behind closed doors for quite a while. You could really feel the enthusiasm and excitement from all involved that they’re finally getting to take these performances outside of the practice space and in front of an actual live audience.
Their 10-song set was all aces, admirably presenting the bulk of the material from the debut album. The sludgy, jammy “Stone” was just one of many highlights, with the group digging through the intricate sections with precision.
If it’s possible to only have one album and leave ‘em wanting more (it is, in fact), Mammoth WVH did just that. It’s a moment reminiscent of the first tour in 1995 by another group that spawned from one-man-band beginnings — and just like the Foo Fighters, one can easily predict that Van Halen and Mammoth WVH are just beginning what will be an incredible run of success.
Watch Guns N’ Roses Perform ‘It’s So Easy’
Watch Guns N’ Roses Perform ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’
Watch Guns N’ Roses Perform ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’
Watch Guns N’ Roses Perform Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
Watch Guns N’ Roses Perform ‘Nightrain’
Guns N’ Roses Tour Set List, July 31, 2021, Hershey
1. “It’s So Easy”
2. “Mr. Brownstone”
3. “Chinese Democracy”
4. “Welcome to the Jungle”
5. “Double Talkin’ Jive”
9. “Live and Let Die”
10. “You’re Crazy”
11. “Rocket Queen”
12. “You Could Be Mine”
13. “I Wanna Be Your Dog”
14. “Civil War”
15. “Dead Horse”
16. “Guitar Solo”
17. “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
18. “November Rain”
19. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”
21. “Paradise City”
Watch Mammoth WVH Perform ‘Don’t Back Down,’ ‘You’ll Be The One’ and ‘Mammoth’
Watch Mammoth WVH Perform ‘Mammoth’
Watch Mammoth WVH Perform ‘Don’t Back Down’
Mammoth WVH Tour Set List, July 31, 2021, Hershey
1. “Don’t Back Down”
2. “You’ll Be The One”
4. “Mr. Ed”
6. “Think it Over”
7. “You’re to Blame”
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