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Guns N’ Roses: Coachella can’t quite conjure Sunset Strip glory years

Day Two: Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival

Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose onstage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The first indication that the Guns N’ Roses playing Coachella was not your parents’ Guns N’ Roses was when singer Axl Rose, guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan started their headlining set on time.

The second set of clues? No, it wasn’t that Rose performed the entire show sitting down or that AC/DC’s Angus Young stormed the stage at one point. It was, when in all sincerity, Rose referred to the audience and evening as “lovely.”

FULL COVERAGE: COACHELLA 2016

The no-shows, temper tantrums, audience provocation and clear disdain for one another that contributed to Guns N’ Roses’ reputation as one of the last dangerous rock groups were absent Saturday night as the L.A. band’s three original members plowed through a two-hour-plus set on Coachella’s main stage.

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With little to no interaction between sworn enemies Rose and Slash, they performed most of the hits (“Paradise City,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine”) 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 GNR 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 additional players including keyboardist Dizzy Reed) kicked off with “It’s So Easy” and “Mr. Brownstone” — songs from an era when punk rock collided with metal on the Sunset Strip — sending the most distinctive hard-rock riffs in Coachella memory across a field now mostly devoted to electronic dance music.

A stationary Rose kept up in the beginning of the set, delivering the acerbic, high-pitched battle cry now associated with a time when hair was big and pants were leather.

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He soon struggled, however, to hit those high notes from his elevated “throne,” which was really a chair adorned by a halo of guitar necks. The gift from Foo Fighter Dave Grohl resembled the seat from “Game of Thrones,” which seemed fitting for a man with at least half as much drama in his life as the Westeros crowd.

 

In pure Rose fashion, he’d messed things up for Guns N’ Roses weeks before Coachella by breaking his foot at a secret Troubadour club gig meant to kick off their “Not in This Lifetime” reunion tour.

But without the trademark slithery, serpentine dance and frenetic stage pacing at Coachella, Rose had to rely on his voice, which isn’t the kindest way for rock’s last megastar, at 54, to reenter the atmosphere.

The singer did rise to the occasion when AC/DC’s Young made his surprise guest appearance, skipping onto the stage in a schoolboy uniform for the Axl-fronted rendition of “Whole Lotta Rosie.”

The guest appearance served as a run-through for their upcoming collaboration: It was announced hours earlier that Rose would be joining the Australian band on its “Rock or Bust” tour, taking the place of Brian Johnson, who’s retiring because of hearing issues.

But when Rose switched back again to singing with Guns N’ Roses (“Paradise City,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”), the little light that 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 Bandana.

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The set wasn’t a disaster à la Stone Roses, which headlined a few years before, or the predictable blast only a precision touring machine like AC/DC can pull off (it carried the main stage last year).

It was instead a valiant effort to achieve the impossible: relive a breakthrough moment when this mess of a band made one of the best rock albums ever. But some things are best left broken, and Guns N’ Roses is one of them.

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

MORE: 

With (most of) N.W.A, Ice Cube insists he’s still a gangsta at Coachella 

LCD Soundsystem reunites, giving nods to Bowie and Guns N’ Roses, plus a dose of self-depreciation

Is Coachella getting political? Some of this year’s art says yes

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