The first indication that this was not your parents’ Guns N’ Roses was when singer Axl Rose, guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan started their headlining set at Coachella on time.
The second clue? No, it wasn’t that Rose performed the entire show sitting down. It was, when in all sincerity, he referred to the audience and evening as “lovely.”
The no-shows, temper tantrums, audience provocation and clear disdain for one another that made Guns N’ Roses one of the last dangerous rock bands were absent Saturday night in Indio as the L.A. band’s three original members plowed through a two-hour-plus set on Coachella’s main stage.
With little to no interaction between sworn enemies Rose and Slash, they performed most of the hits (“Sweet Child ‘O Mine,” “Paradise City,” “Welcome to the Jungle”) and many of the misses (anything from “Chinese Democracy”) with a determined, jaw-clenching patience that has no place in the dysfunctional lore of Guns N’ Roses.
But the relatively young audience was willing to go anywhere with GN’R for a piece of ‘80s rock nostalgia, and it was that suspension of disbelief, coupled with Slash’s talent for making songs you’ve heard a billion times feel vital again, that carried the night.
The band (which included several other additional players including Dizzy Reed) kicked off with “It’s So Easy” and “Mr. Brownstone” -- songs from an era when punk rock collided with metal on L.A.'s Sunset Strip -- sending the best rock riffs in memory at Coachella across a field now mostly devoted to EDM.
An inert Rose kept up in the beginning, but soon struggled to hit those high notes from his elevated “throne,” which was really a chair adorned by guitar necks to resemble something from “Game of Thrones” (and a gift from the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl).
In pure Rose fashion, he’d messed things up for the group by breaking his foot at a secret Troubadour club gig before Guns N’ Roses’ “Not in This Lifetime” reunion tour even started.
But without the slithery serpentine dance and frenetic stage pacing, Rose had to rely on his voice, which at 54 isn’t the kindest way for rock’s last mega-star to reenter the atmosphere.
Rose did up his game for the surprise appearance of AC/DC’s guitarist Angus Young, who skipped on stage in his schoolboy uniform for a rendition of “Whole Lotta Rosie” with Axl on vocals.
It also served as a run-through for their upcoming collaboration: it was announced hours earlier that Rose would be joining AC/DC on their “Rock or Bust” tour, taking the place of Brian Johnson, who just retired due to hearing issues.
But when Rose switched back to singing with Guns N’ Roses (“Paradise City,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”), what little light was left in his eyes seemed to dim, despite his showmanship effort in the form of changing headgear - a worn fedora, a wilted cowboy hat, and yes, The Bandanna.
The set wasn’t a disaster a la Stone Roses, who headlined a few years before, or the predictable blast only a precision touring machine like AC/DC can pull off (they carried the main stage last year).
It was instead a strong effort to achieve the impossible: relive a breakthrough moment in time when this mess of a band made one of the best rock albums ever. Some things are best left broken.
Ali writes for the California News Group, publisher of The San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.