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Guns N’ Roses Live at Download Festival at Donnington Park U.K. (Sunday 11th June 2006)

When Guns N’ Roses played 5 consecutive nights in New York earlier this year, sceptics were shocked that the lynchpin of the band, Axl Rose’s voice, was thankfully on great form, and the entire band played tightly: miles away from the massively disappointing performance at the 2002 MTV VMA’s, where Axl seemed exhausted after running around the stage for about 2 minutes and his voice sounded out of breath and as tired as he looked. Cries of “out of tune” and “past their sell-by date” quickly spread around, as Axl seemingly struggled to get through the 10-minute 3-song medley. But his voice at these 2006 New York shows is on particularly fine form, sounding stronger and, in some ways, more fresh – and unique – than ever. After Sebastian Bach (former frontman of Skid Row, and no stranger to balls-to-the-wall screaming) appeared onstage to sing “My Michelle” with Axl, he commented in an interview with that, although many singers lose their vocal power as they got older, Axl Rose’s voice has got louder and, by default, better.

Guns N’ Roses have a lot to live up at Download tonight, after the positive reviews of the New York shows. To add to the pressure, Metallica were absolutely astounding last night. The fact that they not only played “The Unforgiven” (a live rarity), a new song (cleverly entitled “New Song”), the entire “Master Of Puppets” album (celebrating its 20th anniversary this year), as well as 2 amazing encores – the first featuring a quadruple whammy of metal masterpieces “Sad But True”, “Nothing Else Matters”, “One” and “Enter Sandman”, whilst the second saw a cover of The Misfits classic “Die Die My Darling” and “Seek And Destroy” from Metallica’s debut album – mean that the bar has been set very high. As the walk-on intro music for Guns N’ Roses dies down, and the orgasmic echo of the beginning of “Welcome To The Jungle” rings through the audience, people start to fucking lose it.

And then HE appears. Mutterings of “Holy shit, that’s Axl fucking Rose on the stage” and “Christ, I never thought he’d make it here” are followed by the Axl’s incensed shriek of “D’you know where the fuck you are?! You’re in the jungle Donnington!!”. “Welcome To The Jungle” epitomizes Gn’R. It’s not as radio-friendly as “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, and a world away from the stadium-led rock of “Paradise City”. “Welcome To The Jungle” always sounds like it should be played in a dirty, dark rock club at 4 in the morning, where there’s only Jack Daniels to drink. The song, like the band, radiates danger: Gn’R were famously dubbed the “World’s Most Dangerous Band” in the 90’s and, as Axl leers the line “I wanna watch you bleed”, we know that he’s probably half-serious. The 1-2 sucker-punch of “It’s So Easy” followed by “Mr Brownstone” keeps the audience on their toes, surprised at how good the band really are.

But then, suddenly, the momentum is inexplicably slowed down for a couple of routine (and slightly lackluster) covers – “Live And Let Die” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” – and, perhaps noticing the fall in the audiences exhilaration brought on by these slower songs, it starts going wrong. Robin Finck’s guitar solo is snooze-inducing and the awesome-ness of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is undermined when Axl’s diva behaviour arrives on stage. Halfway through the song, Axl’s perfectionism is tested when he skids on a wet patch on the stage, narrowly saving himself from landing on his arse in front of over 50,000 people. Now wouldn’t THAT be embarrassing?! Axl doesn’t exactly slide head-first into a stack of amps or anything, but the incident certainly dampens his spirits and the band starts to badly flounder. Being such a perfectionist (new album “Chinese Democracy” has been in the making for over 12 years), Axl is really annoyed because he wants the show to go without a hitch.

Ironically, he has already mentioned the wet stage before and, as it’s not been remedied, “I told you so” doesn’t really seem to cut it, and he excuses himself, citing “technical difficulties”, and leaves the stage to give the backstage crew a serious shitstorm of a telling off. New guitarist Bumblefoot (taking over from Buckethead) is left alone, performing a solo instrumental version of “Don’t Cry”. Axl is still present at the side of the stage, visibly annoyed. When Axl returns, he hopes to (in his own words) at least “muddle through” the rest of the show. Some people start to turn their back and walk away from the stage, whilst others seem on edge, hoping that the gig won’t prematurely end. New song “Better” doesn’t seem to appease the obviously restless audience, who start to cheer “Bring back Slash”. It’s been at least a full decade since Gn’R played at Donnington at the Monsters of Rock Festival in 1988, where 2 fans died in the crowd due to overcrowding during the band’s appearance. So when Guns N’ Roses play at THIS location, the audience can make the gig go either way.

And then something just, miraculously, CLICKS. Axl sits down at the piano and starts to play “November Rain”, and from here on out the crowd are agog and the band are untouchable. As the gloriously epic guitar solo outro shimmies through the cigarette lighter-coloured horizon, everything seems to be a million miles away from the troubled first half of the show. As Axl tells us “Everybody needs somebody / You’re not the only one, you’re not the only one”, I know, deep in my heart, that the storm has (luckily) passed, and those who walked away earlier will regret it tomorrow. Axl looks happier now, grinning every so often, and it’s this newly found optimism that rubs off on the crowd who, in turn, seem VERY content. Axl even starts to joke around. No, really. New song “IRS” sounds great and then, as Sebastian Bach comes onstage to trade lines with Axl on a powerful 2-man rendition of “My Michelle”, you can see the glee in their faces as the attempt to shout each other down. The performance of this song has already gone down in the rock n roll history books.

And then a surprise: original rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin joins the band for rousing renditions of “I Used To Love Her” and a touching “Patience”. A 4-guitarist rock out on “Nightrain” is joyously dispensed and then the band leave the stage but the crowd ain’t fooled, and they’re certainly not going anywhere: the thunderous applause ushers the band back. As the opening chords of “Rocket Queen” smoothly reverberate around, Axl has a confession: “I don’t want to leave, I’m having fun now. And that’s different to how I felt an hour ago”. The refrain of “If you need a shoulder / Or if you need a friend / I’ll be here standing / Until the bitter end” seems disarmingly honest in spite of the present circumstances. Another goddamn guitar solo threatens to give the whole bands performance an anti-climactic feel. Why must guitarists try to PROVE that they can play their guitar? We know they can, why would they be onstage otherwise?! Then a stupendous “Paradise City”, with fireworks and confetti, manages to avert a mild crisis.

Throughout the entire set, Axl has run around like a hellcat (and a 44 year old hellcat at that), without seeming out of breath or tired – not unlike that horrible 2002 MTV VMA’s performance. Negative comments about a “hollow shell of a washed up band” fall on deaf ears tonight, as a cheery Axl wishes us a “Good fucking night! And we do hope to see you again soon” and the dis-believers, if not entirely impressed, are at least keeping quiet for the time being. Guns N’ Roses, like any other huge band, are an easy target with numerous critics but, even when it looked like t
hey could just walk off, thereby derailing their show and taking the easy way out, they deserve credit for totally turning the show around and rescuing the headline spot most admirably. In fact, if Metallica raised the bar last night with their performance, then Gn’R not only met that level, but are probably in said bar, rowdily drinking away the rest of their night.
By J. M. Ross.