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Guns N’ Roses live at Glastonbury: rock and roll riot wins over Worthy Farm

It might not be for everyone, but Guns N' Roses deliver the hits with sheer power on Glastonbury's second night.

4.0 rating

By John Lewis

Axl Rose and Slash of Guns N' Roses perform as the band headline the Pyramid Stage at Day 4 of Glastonbury Festival 2023 on June 24, 2023 in Glastonbury, England. (Photo by Harry Durrant/Getty Images)

Glastonbury might have absorbed dozens of subcultures and genres of music over the last half century – hippies and punks, ravers and crusties; reggae and world music, indie and grime – but the fields of Worthy Farm in Somerset have proved inhospitable soil for heavy rock. Metallica tried sheer volume and bombast in their headline slot seven years ago, but even they didn’t really win over the festival. 

Guns N Roses have several advantages over Metallica – at least half a dozen big hits that everyone knows, no dreary new albums to flog, and at least two incredibly charismatic, cartoonish frontmen. So you could see it as something of a mis-step to frontload their set with fan favourites (‘It’s So Easy’, ‘Bad Obsession’, ‘Chinese Democracy’, even a track from the side project Velvet Revolver) rather than hits. It takes half an hour for the galloping ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ to finally get the crowd pogoing. 

You could also see the covers as a mis-step. There’s no faulting Live And Let Die (which turns the orchestral bombast of the original into a dystopian nightmare) and Knocking On Heaven’s Door (mercifully without Axl’s “gimme some reggae!” announcement). But, more obscurely, they revive Down On The Farm by lower-league London punks the UK Subs (a track GNR first played at Farm Aid in 1990); and the pulsating Motown punk of TV Eye by The Stooges, which Axl introduces as being sung by bassist Duff McKagan and his “silky smooth, sexually intoxicating voice”. 

McKagan does a good Iggy Pop impersonation, but it’s at this point that you realise what an extraordinary singer Axl Rose is. His default setting is a screeching falsetto: there are certain notes where it is indistinct, like a whispering drag queen, but mainly it howls like a car alarm. He introduces one song as being a heartfelt paean to a beautiful relationship, and then launches into the scabrous, outrageously misogynistic Absurd, about a “screaming fucking banshee”. Yet Axl howls it with such Lydon-like vengeance and terror that it becomes truly chilling.

The pretty, long-haired 80s pin up now looks rather like the veteran English comedian Charlie Drake, but there’s no doubting his step count. He struts the stage like a manic cage fighter, constantly doing his whirling dervish routine while Slash solos. There are gangways to the left and right of the Pyramid Stage, but Axl apologises for rarely using them, as when he does he can’t hear the rest of the band. “I don’t want you to think I’m being a wuss,” he says. 

And Slash is a reassuring presence, replete in top hat, plaid shirt and his trusty gold Gibson Victoria, using harmonics, slides, audacious string bending and Morse Code effects at the top of the fretboard. But second guitarist Richard Fortus (almost a member for as long as Slash now) is just as impressive. 

This is a long set – the band with an appalling record for time-keeping start, surprisingly, on the dot of 9.30 and don’t end until midnight. The setlist could have done with some pruning at the front end but a home run of ‘Civil War’ (with Axl in a Ukraine T-shirt), ‘You Could Be Mine’, ‘Sweet Child O Mine’, ‘November Rain’, ‘Patience’ and ‘Nighttrain’ set us up for a mammoth version of ‘Paradise City’, featuring Glasto’s now-regular mystery guest Dave Grohl on guitar. This corner of Somerset will never entirely embrace metal, but GNR almost – almost – won them over.