It took an act of God at Governors Ball on Friday – an assailing, miserable rainstorm and frightening flooding – to create a miracle on Saturday night. And yet one happened, it really did.
Axl Rose started a show early.
Indeed, the Guns N’ Roses frontman bucked his own proud tradition of intractability – one that has led to countless hours of empty stages and show delays since the band’s 1985 formation – by taking the New York festival’s main stage seven minutes before the headlining band’s scheduled start. What’s more, Rose actually appeared engaged with his surroundings; he and his hard-rock cohorts barreled straight into the largely under-30s audience with a throaty and joyously grandiose introduction of “Chinese Democracy” (title track of the hysterically overlabored 2008 album), unleashing flames from the drum riser as Rose slid into that famed falsetto with impressive ease. From there, the band kept no cards at their chests; their second song was their career-maker, 1987’s “Welcome to the Jungle,” delivered with the revelation of their entire arsenal of stadium tricks, the silly staples of the hair-metal era that they rightly make no apologies for: the videos of scantily clad dancers, the double-necked guitars, the liberal stage fireballs and fireworks, even that snake dance.
Guns N’ Roses nonchalantly played all the hits for the mud-caked Governors Ball masses, and kicked in early with a slew of Appetite for Destruction immortals. “It’s So Easy” boasted even more fireworks (those were frequent enough in the set to double as kick drums) as Rose dipped down an octave-and-change with aplomb. (He truly does sound great, still, even if he insists on wearing cheesy t-shirts of women with cartoonish bare breasts. Or perhaps these are his Samson-esque source of vocal strength.) “Mr. Brownstone” slid sludgily into their stalwart 1991 cover of Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live and Let Die,” fireballs roaring from the stage again. Then came the short sprint into “Rocket Queen,” which boasted an extremely Eighties video montage of models gyrating in leather and fishnets before a stark white backdrop, and a comfortable spin through “Sweet Child o’ Mine” that was matched by the audience’s rapturous participation. (Lead guitarist DJ Ashba, clad in a familiar top hat, sported a distinct “I crushed that” smirk at the end of “Child.” Rose, as always, remained unimpressed.)
This familiarity is what allows any iteration of the band to headline a festival 26 years after the release of Appetite for Destruction; the best and worst to be said of them is that they sound exactly, resolutely, safely like their records. There is no experimentation wanted or received from anyone onstage (and it’s not of interest to fans either). Guns N’ Roses is, famously, Axl Rose and whoever he hasn’t fired that month; his iron fist and business savvy in the current lineup is apparent in every note they play. He is the only original member left (keyboardist Dizzy Reed dates the next furthest back as a contributor to 1991’s Use Your Illusion I and II) and the rest of the musicians are, while clearly technically talented, expected to play with note-for-note faithfulness the familiar chords and solos of classic-lineup stars Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan, etc., like a cover ensemble of their own catalogue. “November Rain,” one of the many Illusion I offerings, broke down with precise familiarity, from Rose’s soft piano intro to the plaintive Slash guitar solo, to the frenetic coda of foreboding chants and cataclysmic strings. Their glimmering cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (from Illusion II) still sprawled near healthy double-digits; “Nightrain” chugged along right on schedule, without brakes or extra coal.
The highly enjoyable, completely predictable set ended with the group’s longtime finale from Appetite: “Paradise City,” an entreaty to the libidinous that Rose remains skilled enough to have already made redundant. At its bawdy, bright close, confetti canyons spread glitter across the crowd and fireworks lit the night, the latest in a healthy half-dozen times in the set. Rose almost seemed to grin back at the crowd, but there was no need – he’s seen this all before, and he knows he will again.