Either AC/DC sent Axl Rose to a punctuality boot-camp or Slash was always Guns N’ Roses’ stickler for timekeeping. As anyone who stuck out the hour’s wait past stage time for their 2010 Reading set, the Axl-plus-blokes GN’R became famous for apparently needing to finish the latest surprise drop season of Kimmy Schmidt before going onstage. Not so tonight’s Semi-Authentic GN’R Experience, now including Slash and Duff McKagan and only missing Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler for a full ‘Appetite For Destruction’-era comeback (a space, rumourmongers suggest, worth watching). This revitalised incarnation arrive at Download a full one minute early. So confident is Axl Rose of a punctual finish that he’s apparently ordered a lockdown on traffic leaving the site after 10.45pm to ensure himself a swift exit.
After ten minutes of visuals of a GN’R tank destroying cartoon zombies, they arrive in spectacularly ragged fashion, blasting out ‘It’s So Easy’ with monstrous intent. Axl, resplendent in trademark hat, chains and arse-cape, struts around the stage looking like Van Morrison, sounding like Tom Waits (keyboardist Melissa Reese helps out with his shriller warblings) and shaking hips that don’t lie, but you wish they would a bit. While Slash lets loose frenetic solos on ‘Mr Brownstone’, Axl stomps around like band gaffer, conjuring voodoo from the elemental blues chunder. As ridiculous as it all looks, there’s real power in the first forty minutes: ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ is fresh, fruity and swathed in visuals of a cityscape of neon screens, ‘Double Talkin’ Jive’ is all ominous flamenco throb rock and even a few cuts from 2008’s much maligned ‘Chinese Democracy’ pack a powerful smokehouse punch.
An eye-watering opening. Trouble is, GN’R are scheduled to play for three and a half hours. Now, very few acts can sustain this sort of quality and energy over three and a half hours. Springsteen can do it, but he has the unfair advantage of having written all those Bruce Springsteen songs. Guns N’ Roses have written – let’s be generous – about forty minutes of truly classic material. Bung in some solid album tracks (bombastic protest tune ‘Civil War’ and a touching ‘Patience’) and fan rarities (a cracking punk roar through ‘Shadow Of Your Love’ from their pre-Guns days as Hollywood Rose) and you’ve got a set-in-stone hour, hour-fifteen tops.
But GN’R crave the stature of Springsteen, so they pad out an entire third of their slot with covers. Some they virtually own anyway – no-one’s begrudging them a fiery ‘Live And Let Die’ or a pumped-up ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’. Some they pay faithful tribute to: Duff gives The Misfits’ ‘Attitude’ a devoted roughing up and their sit-down take on ‘Wichita Lineman’ is as close to sublime as they get tonight. But by cramming in The Who’s ‘The Seeker’, Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’ and a bizarre segment where Slash solos through an instrumental version of Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ before Axl joins them on grand piano – with a tiny motorbike as a stool – to do the boring bit at the end of ‘Layla’, they merely drag the pace of the set to a quicksand crawl.
Then, Slash’s solos. Impressive, nay virtuosic, when sparingly deployed – heaven knows his gold-weaving riffs rescue ‘This I Love’ from being mauled to death by Axl’s godawful, tone-deaf mewling. But they’re pointless padding the rest of the time. One lengthy boogie-woogie bit we think might be called ‘Timekiller’ finds Slash proving himself the Jools Holland of LA whiskey rock, randomly dropping in bits of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and the theme from The Godfather. When it suddenly drops into the riff from ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, a thousand Portaloo doors are kicked off from the inside.
Because in those sporadic moments that Guns N’ Roses fire on all brutal cylinders, they’re frankly unbeatable. ‘You Could Be Mine’, ‘Nightrain’, a sumptuous ‘November Rain’ and a show-stopping ‘Paradise City’ are high-water marks of hard rock. It’s a shame all the padding only serves to lessen their stature.