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Quarantine Classic Concerts: Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion Tour ‘91-’93

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 20: Duff McKagan, Slash, Axl Rose and Gilby Clarke of Guns n Roses perform on stage at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium on April 20th, 1992 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Pete Still/Redferns)

Editor’s Note: Since live music has been effectively shelved, we’re going to dive back with a series of reviews of classic tours, beginning with this one.

The quarantine life, for the most part, sucks. And that’s especially true for music fans, who, instead of gearing up for their favorite concerts this spring and summer, have had to helplessly sit back and watch as artists en masse cancel or postpone shows.

The coronavirus, beyond ravaging countries across the globe and pushing healthcare workers to the brink, simply has grabbed our day-to-day plans by the balls.

So until we’re back to partying at shows like normal, what’s the next best thing we can do? Revisit a few classic tours via YouTube, of course. And the best place to start has to be with Guns N’ Roses’ iconic, wild, excessive and seemingly never-ending Use Your Illusion Tour.

The tour was a behemoth, running for more than two years and spanning 194 shows in 27 countries.

After starting out as a grimey club act from Hollywood six years earlier, by the time the tour kicked off in 1991, Guns ‘N Roses had morphed into the biggest rock and roll band on earth. That transition was reflected in everything the band did, from Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, their two newest albums, to their mammoth concert act. Backup singers, 10-minute songs, Dizzy Reed joining on keyboards, bloated music videos featuring helicopters, weddings and even Arnold Schwarzenegger… it was all there in the early ‘90s for G N’ R. Big, everything was big.

Still, this wasn’t a Van Halen 1986 situation with the band turning from rock icons into a cheesy pop-rock act overnight. Guns N’ Roses added a few layers by the time the Use Your Illusion Tour started, but they could still rock as hard as anyone, and the band made that clear by opening many nights with a blistering rendition of “Nightrain.” This version, from Chicago in 1992, is especially great, with Axl Rose flying around the stage. Bonus points are awarded for his manic “I guess I’ll never fuckin’ learn!” midway through the song.

By this time, Axl was really feeling himself. There’s no other way to explain him wearing tiny biker shorts for what seemed like one-third of the shows on this tour… and still kinda pulling it off without looking ridiculous. You get a little taste of it here in this “Live & Let Die” performance from Paris in 1992:

There was also the “degenerate Groundskeeper Willie” outfit, complete with a grip of flannel and high-top Cons, which you see in this ‘92 Tokyo performance of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”:

He was also a madman. 

The Use Your Illusion Tour is infamous, nearly 30 years later, for Axl being a prime candidate to go ballistic on any given night. Multiple riots — that’s plural — occurred. One riot followed Axl jumping into the crowd during a show in St. Louis in July 1991 to go after a fan that was recording the show. Axl, after emerging from the pit, declared “Well, thanks to the lame-ass security, I’m going home,” and abruptly ended the show by throwing his mic down.

A year later, more bedlam ensued in Montreal, when the band took its sweet ass time getting to the stage after Metallica frontman James Hetfield was severely burned, cutting their set short. After only a few songs, Axl — who had been suffering from vocal issues around the time — called it a night, leading to another riot.

It wasn’t all bad, though. The Use Your Illusion Tour wouldn’t be remembered this many years later if it was just a shit show. As for the good, the Freddie Mercury tribute show stands out in particular, with GNR pumping out a vintage performance of “Paradise City”:

Axl later joined the surviving members of Queen on stage for “We Will Rock You”:

There are also a few first-rate performances that have to be included, like this blitz through “You Could Be Mine” in Oklahoma City:

And while technically not a tour stop, the band’s appearance at the ‘92 MTV Video Music Awards should be mentioned. This article has gone on long enough without acknowledging Slash’s double guitar solos on “November Rain,” and the inclusion of Elton John is a nice touch, especially considering Axl had been fighting off claims of homophobia for years by then.

As for the ugly, this tour decimated classic GNR. By the start, Matt Sorum had already replaced original drummer Steven Adler, who was fired from the band in 1990 over his drug addiction. Guitarist Izzy Stradlin didn’t last long into the tour, either. He decided to leave the band in August 1991, weeks before Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II came out, after growing tired of Axl’s antics. (Gilby Clarke made his debut in late 1991 and stayed on for the rest of the tour.) Izzy stuck around long enough to lead sing “Dust N’ Bones” a few times live; a few of the performances on YouTube are rough, but this edition, from the band’s Live Era ‘87-’93 album, shows how critical Izzy was:

Meanwhile, the guys that stuck around were getting pummeled by the nonstop touring, boozing and drugging. 

“Every day I made sure I had a vodka bottle next to my bed when I woke up,” bassist Duff McKagan told Maxim years later. “I tried to quit drinking in 1992, but started again with a vengeance after only a few weeks. I just could not stop. I was too far gone. My hair began falling out in clumps, and my kidneys ached when I pissed. The skin on my hands and feet cracked, and I had boils on my face and neck. I had to wear bandages under my gloves to be able to play my bass.” 

By the time Guns N’ Roses finally crossed the finish line in mid-1993, the band that had saved rock music in the late ‘80s was now on its deathbed. The Spaghetti Incident? came out later that same year, but the collection of cover songs was about as uninspiring as the album’s title.

So let’s end this on a high note, with a clip of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” from the band’s final Use Your Illusion Tour show in Buenos Aires (nice Argentina jerseys, Axl and Slash):

While old school GNR like this is now relegated to our memories and old clips on YouTube, hopefully, fans will be able to see the band on tour again later this year — just as they’d anticipated before this COVID-19 chaos broke out.