After inspiring head-banging for so many years, Guns N’ Roses instead left some in the audience head-scratching on Friday night at PNC Park.
The veteran hard rockers’ world tour hit Pittsburgh, and singer Axl Rose’s voice fluctuated throughout the night, rarely coming close to the dynamic singing captured in their classic hits like “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
Rose’s voice started deep and theatrical, sometimes rising higher but softer, dropping to a whisper and disappearing completely at other times. Whether it’s faded by age or damaged vocal cords or a bad mix, the see-sawing vocals proved jarring and the 61-year-old’s signature feral howls never truly materialized.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a good show, as Guns N’ Roses has been solid musically since original members guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan rejoined the band in 2016. (That’s also the last time they played in Pittsburgh, when they visited Heinz Field for the Not in This Lifetime tour.)
Slash, who turned 58 last month, unleashed fiery solo after solo throughout the night, with “Double Talkin’ Jive,” “Chinese Democracy” and “Mr. Brownstone” among the highlights. Decked out in his trademark top hat and sunglasses (even at night), Slash’s guitar theatrics/heroics propelled the band through a three-hour spin through all their hits.
McKagan served as a steadying force, helping to fill in the gaps on vocals. The rest of the band — guitarist Richard Fortus, drummer Frank Ferrer, keyboardist Dizzy Reed and keyboardist Melissa Reese — kept the music sounding like classic Guns N’ Roses. The stage set-up was fairly straight forward, with two giant video screens flanking the stage, while there was no pyro (or fireworks!) and only limited lighting into the crowd.
Rose, for all of the hit-and-miss vocals, proved an amiable frontman with plenty of smiles, apparently much changed from the volatile days of the 1980s and ‘90s when he would often arrive late for shows. That didn’t happen Friday, as Rose noted at 10:22 p.m.: “I’ve got 38 minutes left to (mess) up your (crap)!”
Seemingly channeling Elton John (at least with his silver dress coat and big sunglasses), Rose showed off his impressive piano ability on “November Rain,” ending their epic rock ballad with a flourish. And Rose’s vocals sounded particularly strong on “Nightrain” near the end of the set.
A new song, “Perhaps,” made its live debut at PNC Park, just one day after being officially released on Thursday. “I didn’t screw the pooch on that too bad,” Rose said afterward.
The piano-driven song is the band’s first new music since “Absurd” and “Hard Skool” came out in August and September of 2021. All three of those songs have origins dating back to the “Chinese Democracy” sessions in the early 2000s.
With only three albums by the classic band lineup, their debut “Appetite for Destruction” appeared prominently Friday, with eight of 12 songs played. Other highlights included “You Could Be Mine,” “Estranged” and “Civil War,” which featured Rose wearing a T-shirt with a Ukrainian flag. (That was just one of at least 10 minor wardrobe changes for Rose.)
Of the band’s 27 songs played Friday night, five were covers. Of those, “Live and Let Die” by Wings and “Slither” by Velvet Revolver — which included Slash and McKagan — were the high points, while Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” seemed like it went on a bit too long. McKagan sang lead vocals on the Stooges’ “T.V. Eye,” and, for the U.K. Subs’ “Down on the Farm,” Rose busted out a faux British accent, much like he did on “The Spaghetti Incident?” album version.
After Rose asked whether the crowd wanted a tearful ballad, disco, salsa or a violin concerta to end the night, the band closed with a celebratory performance of “Paradise City.”
Unlike Pink’s show at PNC Park on Aug. 5, this was not a sell-out. (Luke Combs, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran packed Acrisure Stadium earlier this year, and Morgan Wallen has two nights of sold-out shows coming later this month at PNC Park.)
The PNC Park show was added on May 31, more than three months after a concert at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey — about 3.5 hours from Pittsburgh — was announced. Ticket sales here seemed to lag, with prices as low as $25 last week and in the hours leading up to the show in the 100 level. That led to the entire 300 level of the park going unused Friday night.
Mike Palm | Tribune-Review
A view of PNC Park around 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 18, 2023, for the Guns N’ Roses concert.
Reviews for their recent tour dates have been mixed, including a June show where they were eviscerated after headlining the Glastonbury Festival in England. One critic described Rose as flipping “between a lower register that resembles a clogged lawnmower and a higher one that sounds like Barry Gibb suffering the mother of all wedgies.” Another said Rose, “who now resembles an aging small-town hairdresser, has lost his vocal power.”
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The Pretenders, with original singer/rhythm guitarist Chrissy Hynde leading the way, opened the show with a prompt 6 p.m. start. Wearing a black T-shirt with Pittsburgh emblazoned across the front, the Akron native Hynde praised Pittsburgh.
“It’s what Akron should have been if they hadn’t (messed) it up,” she said.
The band rolled through their hits, like “Brass in Pocket,” “Back on the Chain Gang,” “I’ll Stand by You” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” as well as “Hymn to Her,” a ballad Hynde said was requested by Rose.
The Pretenders start exactly at 6 p.m. as the opening act for Guns N’ Roses at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. pic.twitter.com/AoZzoKySMn
— Mike Palm (@MikePalmMedia) August 18, 2023
Mike Palm is a Tribune-Review digital producer. You can contact Mike at 412-380-5674 or [email protected].