Review by Danny Francis-Butler
Friday saw current hard rock goliaths Avenged Sevenfold provide the pyro, the teenage anthems and more pyro; while Saturday saw 30+ years rock and roll veterans Guns N’ Roses dominate the mainstage with their sleazy riffs, soaring vocals and spectacular stage presence. When first announced that Guns N’ Roses were to play a three hour plus set, reactions were similar across the board.. “Really? Three hours? That’s way too long!” The Guns N’ Roses back catalogue though, featuring two definitive line ups, spans back to their first recording 1986’s EP Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide, their 1987 magnum opus Appetite for Destruction containing massive hits Welcome to the Jungle, Paradise City and Sweet Child of Mine, and their musically profound Use Your Illusion 1 & 2 double release which highlights the bands ability to write songs packed with raw energy and vicious lyrics, as well as the more delicate, epic piano ballads such as November Rain and Estranged. However, the band still felt the need to fill the setlist with covers from Hollywood Rose (the precursor group that would eventually become Guns N’ Roses), The Who and Eric Clapton. Without a doubt, Guns N’ Roses bought together one of the largest crowds to be seen at Donington Park as men, women and children were buzzing in anticipation to see one of the most critically acclaimed rock bands of all time.
The intro video rolled and bassist Duff McKagan coolly entered the stage on his own, plucking out the intro to It’s So Easy. The rest of the band joined when their queues hit, and it really was a marvel to see Duff, recently returning guitar hero Slash and Axl share a stage together….let alone, on time. As soon as the song stopped, drummer Frank Ferrer hammered the band into a blazing rendition of Mr. Brownstone. It seemed as if the band were still trying to get warmed up and were trying to gauge the crowd. The next song was an odd choice. The bands decision to play songs from Chinese Democracy took a few in the audience by surprise and it somewhat perplexed the crowd.. “What is this song? I’ve never heard this song in my life!” ..but I get it, some people bought the album, some people didn’t. However, it goes to show the lengths of professionalism from Slash and Duff to learn the songs from an album they never wrote for nor played on to fill out there 180-minute set. Once that song was over and done with, Axl roused the crowd, screaming “Do you know where you are? You’re in Donington Baby! You’re gonna diiiiiie!” as Slash teased the delayed intro to Welcome to the Jungle. You’d be forgiven if you were to accuse them of dragging out their intros, in fact, most of the filler happened at this point of the set. An Izzy Stradlin deep cut from Use Your Illusion 1 (Double Talkin’ Jive), another song from Chinese Democracy (Better), and the near 10-minute epic A-side release Estranged. You could almost see half of the audience drifting off to sleep but the true Guns N’ Roses fans were loving every minute of it, it is a killer song after all. They then segued into Live and Let Die and the crowd sprung alive once more, singing in unison.
What came next was truly baffling. Guns N’ Roses covering a Velvet Revolver song? You bet your ass they did. And musically it was perfect. Vocally, not so. Axl did not possess the combination of power and silkiness that Scott Weiland had in his voice. The guitar solo on the other hand was superb, Slash nailed it note for note. Maybe it was a compromise between Slash and Axl: “You play my Chinese Democracy songs, I’ll play your Velvet Revolver songs”. When you look back at the history and bad blood between Scott Weiland and Axl Rose in the press, Scott Weiland calling Axl Rose a “fat, Botox faced, wig wearin’ FUCK”, you’d be hard pressed to find a reason why Axl would want to cover a Velvet Revolver song. Perhaps a belated tribute to Weiland. Or perhaps it’s Axl’s response in a way of saying “I’m alive and you’re not.” Combined with the next song on the set, it may just be apparent that it was yet more unnecessary filler. A dragged-out intro to the Appetite for Destruction closer Rocket Queen swiftly follows. There seemed to be a pattern emerging, for every massively popular anthem played, they played a lot of filler afterwards.
The next sequence of songs featured the highly energetic You Could Be Mine. The drum and bass thundered on the intro and then the band hit the crowd with that sleazy, greasy, finger lickin’ good riff of the ages and the crowd came to life once more. A cover of Attitude by the Misfits followed, Axl exits stage left to take break and Duff sings. Perplexing the crowd once more, Axl re-emerged and the band played another song from Chinese Democracy and a Hollywood Rose cover. From here on out they performed another eclectic mix of anthems and fillers including Civil War which was very good. Almost record quality.
Axl introduced the band, including “your fellow Englishman, Slash”. For those who don’t know, Saul Hudson AKA, Slash, was born in Stoke-On-Trent to an English father and an African American mother. Slash then showed off his sweet-sounding blues rock guitar skills for a good ten to fifteen minutes and brought the band into an instrumental version of Johnny B Goode and eventually got into Sweet Child of Mine, the big one everyone had been waiting for. It was next level stuff, we witnessed a band that had sworn down it would never play together again playing their biggest hit, and they didn’t disappoint. Following that was the 10-minute album closer to Use Your Illusion 1, Coma. Slash was now brimming with energy, hopping from one side of the stage to the other. It’s a great riff, lets face it. Following that was Wichita Lineman, which one can only assume was a tribute to the late great Glenn Campbell and an all instrumental version of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, which sounded amazing. To bring this sequence to its climax, Axl sat behind the piano and played the band into the piano coda of Derek and Dominoes Layla which lasted a good five more minutes until he carries the band into a rousing rendition of November Rain. 100,000 metal heads swaying in time to the music, lumps in throats, tears on cheeks, singing as loud as they possibly can.
They followed onto a tribute to Chris Cornell by playing a cover of Black Hole Sun, which didn’t stop the tears from the crowd. It was beautiful. Slash broke out the double neck and played what felt like an endless version of Knocking on Heavens Door. Immediately afterwards the energy picked up and they kicked into Nightrain to cap their set, a song about a cheap American fortified wine. The band was a tight unit, a wrecking ball of hard rock playing music that perfectly highlights the alcohol fuelled debauchery that exists within the trenches that is the legendary campsites of Donington Park. The band exits the stage and after a while a jangly acoustic guitar pumps through the PA as Axl whistles the melody to Patience, followed by an electric cover of the Who’s 1970 single The Seeker and then straight into Paradise City. The music and the atmosphere have Slash gyrating from one side of the stage to the other and again, Axl struggles to reach the notes. The band left the stage with literally a bang, as a gobsmacking firework display lit the sky beyond.
What was witnessed on that Saturday night was something not a lot of people have ever or will ever witness again. While they did fill their unnecessarily long festival set, which saw earlier bands have to cut their sets short or start earlier, with unnecessary covers and dragged out intros, the music and the energy that Guns N’ Roses bought to Download Festival was spectacular. Not all the songs were a hit, but they weren’t exactly a miss either. Guns N’ Roses reset the bar for the festival in terms of performance, musicianship and the ability to grip the crowd as they did. This wasn’t just a rock show, but an out and out experience. Some people ask once the Rolling Stones have gone, who will replace them as the worlds everlasting rock band? After this show, you couldn’t argue that it would not be Guns N’ Roses, so if you ever get the chance to see them, I’d highly recommend going. Guns N’ Roses are simply outstanding.