Guns & Roses, live in Belgrade, Serbia (2010)
I slowly lowered the needle head onto the spinning vinyl, stood back, put up the volume and as Axl’s ascending growl started pounding my ears, I felt a wave of goosebumps come over me and “Welcome to the Jungle” started pounding out of my stereo. It’s not the first time I’ve played this record nor the first time I’ve heard this song. It’s just a loud reminder of the Guns ‘N Roses concert on Thursday, September 23rd in the Belgrade Arena and how Axl and his band absolutely blew away the whole arena!
I hadn’t really thought much about the concert but I knew it was something that had to be seen, so by 19:00 I was in the car with friends, on the highway to Belgrade with a ‘best hits’ compilation CD of the ‘roses playing in the car.
By 21:30 we were making our way inside the Arena. Kids, teens, young folk, old folk, weird folk….. everyone was there. Every third t-shirt was emblazoned with a G’N’R logo and some kids even had the ‘Axl from the 90’s’ bandana on their heads. Local cover band (I use the term “cover” loosely, because they do have some of their own material as well) Nightshift opened, followed by Canadian rockers Danko Jones. I know what you’re thinking, “Canadian? Oh dear, not more Nickelback or Barenaked Ladies type of stuff!!” but these guys were different. I heard the name, but never listened to the band and needless to say I was pretty impressed by the 3-man outfit with their hard riffs and catchy hard rock songs. They played for a good 45 minutes and riled up the crowd just enough for the main act…
GnR were scheduled to start at 23:00, but with their recent track record of starting shows up to 2 hours later, everyone was a bit skeptical. 23:30 the lights go off, the stage turns an eerie red, the guitars scream, the drums roll in and Axl Rose’s voice makes the nearly 20,000 capacity crowd roar with an excitement that not many bands have managed to do in this region. The skepticism and doubt is quickly washed away by the unabashed raw power and stage presence of not only Mr. Rose, but of the entire band.
Axl Rose, cowboy hat, torn jeans and shiney coat sounded like he did on that first record, 1987’s “Appetite for Destruction”. The same growls, the same high pitched screams, the same volume, the same intensity and that same Axl groove while he sings! Now is the moment where I would say “but it wasn’t the same without Slash”….. and as much as I hate to admit it, Slash wasn’t really all that missed. Granted, his riffs, solos and ‘feeling’ while playing the guitar have made him a true guitar legend and an essential part of Guns ‘N Roses, BUT…. yes, there is a “BUT”…. the three-guitar assault provided by Richard Fortus, Ron Thal and DJ Ashba was good enough to make the crowd hardly notice Slash’s absence. Don’t get me wrong, his mere presence would have accounted for probably twice the excitement, but musically the band sounded as good as ever…. and come on, as good a guitar player as Slash is, three lead guitars is just that much more powerful. Axl introduced each guitarist at random points in the show and they each had their own 5 minutes of fame where they showed that they aren’t just backing musicians. And with Ashba’s Gibson SG choice of guitar and mini top-hat he even seemed to be paying homage to the Slash Legacy. So yes, the sound was definitely awesome but it did take three musicians to fill Slash’s (metaphorically) large boots.
The show itself was a grand spectacle to say the least. Not too many fancy stage props or moving bits and pieces, but the screens and the impressive pyrotechnics justified the convoy of large 18-wheeler trucks parked outside the arena. I was fortunate enough to have a fan-pit ticket and was able to witness the immense visual power that a GNR show will bring.
Seating allocation did not, however, have any impact on the sound that each and every member of that audience experienced. Whether you were standing so close to the stage that you could feel Axl’s sweat drip onto your screaming face or whether you were in the stands right at the back watching what might have seemed like an ant-show far away in the distance… the music was loud, it was powerful, it was intense, it was raw and it was as in your face as anyone could have hoped for from Gun ‘N Roses!
The show did include a number of tracks from the new album Chinese Democracy which, in all fairness did have the crowd clapping along at times. But as was to be expected, it was the hits that erupted the Arena…. and the hits were aplenty! They played almost all the classics and even the ones they didn’t (Civil War and Patience for example) weren’t missed. Welcome to the Jungle was the second song on the setlist and when the lights came on, nearly 20,000 ecstatic Serbs (and even a few foreigners) jumped up and down like manic synchronized ping pong balls! Rocket Queen, Mr. Brownstone, Sweet Child O’ Mine (a fan threw a sign on the stage that, when Axl and one of the guitarists spread open, read “Welcome Sweet Child O’ Belgrade) and Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door got the crowd even more riled up, particularly when the crowd yelled “Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door” at their top of their lungs and their claps echoed around the Arena during Sweet Child made it seem like a thunderstorm was brewing outside.
Axl showcased his musical talents on the piano (with fingers, hands and even feet) during November Rain, the jubilant crowd sang most of Don’t Cry and roared with approval as they did an energetic cover of AC/DC’s Whole Lotta Rosie, which sent 20,000 devil-horn hand signs straight into the air.
Two hours later and the band left the stage, only to return for an encore… and what an encore! Another awesome track from the new album, followed by a slow almost acoustic ballad and the last song of the night needed just the ever recognizable drum beat to get the crowd jumping up with a new wave of energy and singing “Paradise City” to finish off 2.5 hours of blood pumping, voice-exhausting energetic rock & roll music, with flying confetti and silver streamers pouring down from the ceiling at the end.
A band hug, a bow to the audience, a nod, a tip of the hat and a flying guitar pick sent out into the crowd saw the end of a surprisingly spectacular show that blew the minds of all present and will stand out as probably one of the best rock concerts that Serbia has witnessed this year! And while the media and even former band mates have described Axl as being selfish and difficult (which may well be true) one thing is certain, the man still has what it takes to rock your socks off and has managed to retain the energy and raw rock & roll power that is Guns ‘N Roses after all these years and it only seems fitting that Sinatra’s “My Way” plays afterwards as a sweaty, happy and drained crowd leaves the Arena with a satisfied appetite for destruction.