Despite only releasing one album of original material in the past two and a half decades, Guns N’ Roses has changed significantly in the last few years. When the band came to the Fillmore Silver Spring in 2012, frontman Axl Rose and his eccentric cast of replacement players were touring theatre-sized venues.
Though the band’s catalog and large portions of the set have remained the same, the return of guitar icon Slash and original bassist Duff McKagan in 2016 renewed G-N’-R’s draw.
Via the appeal of the reunited lineup, the band has been playing stadiums and arenas since spring 2016. On Thursday night, the aptly titled “Not in This Lifetime” tour stopped at Washington’s Capital One Arena (formerly Verizon Center) for a set lasting more than three hours. The long running time allowed the band to lay into back catalog hits, deep cuts, tracks from 2008’s “Chinese Democracy” and a wide range of classic-rock covers.
As Rose, Slash and McKagan took center stage, supporting members like drummer Frank Ferrer and multi-instrumentalist Dizzy Reed provided a strong backbone to the show.
Guitarist Richard Fortus and keyboardist Melissa Reese particularly stood out. Sporting an oversized white guitar, Fortus charged the stage back and forth, laying rhythm under Slash’s clinical blues solos, and on rare occasion taking lead duties. Reese’s backup vocals were integral to many tracks, most notably during “Better,” the “Chinese Democracy” cut in which she provided a steady contrast to Rose’s soaring caterwauls.
Once considered a touring liability, Rose often played gracious host, smiling quietly near the drum riser as Slash tore through several spotlight-worthy moments, like the introduction of “Sweet Child O‘ Mine” and a virtuosic solo version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Be Goode.”
McKagan took lead singing duties for a cover of The Damned’s “New Rose” and stalked the third level of the stage during the bass intro to “Nightrain,” from the album “Appetite for Destruction.”
Setlist staples like “Yesterdays” and “Civil War” were accompanied by two “Use Your Illusion” deep cuts, “Double Talkin’ Jive” and “Coma.” A nine-minute opus, “Coma,” co-written by Rose and Slash, had not been performed during the guitarist’s long absence from the band. Its return to the set made for a memorable moment among long-time fans.
Late-set “Chinese Democracy” songs “Catcher in the Rye” and “Madagascar” were met with less enthusiasm. Still, both were sprawling, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink songs, with plenty of piano, samples, and broad riffs that worked well in the large venue.
It is unclear if Guns N’ Roses will put out a new album with the reunited lineup, and given Rose’s studio perfectionism (“Chinese Democracy” famously took 17 years to gestate), new material is anything but certain.
If they do get around to putting out new music, it is unlikely to resemble their groundbreaking debut, “Appetite for Destruction.” This is no longer the volatile L.A. band that stormed MTV in the late ’80s.
Instead, the long set (which included eight covers, all nodding to rock’s past) gave the impression that Guns N’ Roses — with a large lineup in the mold of touring versions of the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd — are proud to carry the torch as classic-rock troubadours. The covers, which ranged from Chuck Berry to Pink Floyd to The Who, left no doubt that this tour is about history — both Guns N’ Roses’ as well rock ’n’ roll’s.
“It’s So Easy”
“Welcome to the Jungle”
“Double Talkin’ Jive”
“Live and Let Die” (Wings cover)
“You Could Be Mine”
“New Rose” (The Damned cover)
“This I Love”
“Johnny B. Goode” (Slash solo, Chuck Berry cover)
“Speak Softly, Love” (Love Theme from “The Godfather”) (Nino Rota cover)
“Sweet Child O’ Mine”
“Wichita Lineman” (Glen Campbell cover)
“Used to Love Her”
“Wish You Were Here” (Pink Floyd cover)
“Black Hole Sun”
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (Bob Dylan cover)
“Catcher in the Rye”
“The Seeker” (The Who cover)
Jay Trucker teaches English at the Community College of Baltimore County, Dundalk. A Midnight Sun contributor since 2010, he last reviewed Local H in Annapolis.