|By John Atkin
John Atkin reflects on Sunday @ Download as Guns n' Roses headlined the festival with their appetite for self-destruction turning into a masterclass.
There's a moment when it all hangs in the balance.
For 30 minutes, Guns 'n Roses have singed the eyebrows and eardrums of the Download crowd. After being over an hour late on stage at Hammersmith earlier in the week, Gn'R are on-time and on-form, opening with flashbombs and the one-two-three suckerpunch of Welcome To The Jungle, It's So Easy and Mr Brownstone.
Live And Let Die and Knockin' On Heaven's Door follow, before guitarist Robin Finck picks out the signature riff to Sweet Child O'Mine.
But you can tell from the giant screens flanking the stage that all is not well on the braided, goateed visage of Axl Rose. He's been carping about the stage being too slippy and, during a front-of-crowd walkabout, appears to aim the 'c' word at an over-zealous steward. As the band's most famous song dies, he abruptly announces: "We're having some technical problems, so we're gonna take a break."
I was on this Leicestershire soil in 1988 when the over-exuberant response to Guns' debute Donington appearance led to the fatal crushing of two fans. With tonight's restless crowd, semi-delirious on three days of booze, guitars and 30-degree heat, this could all turn nasty. Just as it seems as though Axl's well-documented appetite for self-destruction is about to consume another comeback appearance, guitarist Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal saves the day, appearing alone, stage front, to crank out a guitar-only version of Don't Cry which quells the bottle-fight in the crowd enough for normal service to (almost) be resumed.
You Could Be Mine claws back more ground but then Axl's gone again, leaving Finck and Richard Fortus to widdle their way through a (frankly excruciating) guitar instrumental version of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful". That's followed by the night's first new song (The Blues?) in which the level of chatter in the crowd, followed by booing and chants of "sort your f****** head out" , have seasoned Axl-watchers on alert yet again. When bassist Tommy Stinson grabs the vocal mic and threatens to go home if he's hit by one more flying bottle, the rainclouds gathering above Download for the first time all weekend seem an apt, if ominous, portent of a coming storm.
Maybe Axl needs this danger, this threat of impending violence, to really get the adrenaline racing. And as the band rips defiantly in to Out Ta Get Me, the whole dynamic shifts. Dizzy Reed's solo piano version of Ziggy Stardust is warmly received, another new song (Better?) sounds loads, erm, better.
The tide has turned, and it's time for Axl's coup de theatre: "I'd like to welcome a very good friend of mine…Mr Izzy Stradlin…" and out trots his former sidekick to roars of approval. There are now as many members of prime-time Guns n' Roses in this band as there are in Velvet Revolver, and the performance of Think About You that follows throws down a gauntlet for all pretenders.
"Can I get a piano out here?" asks Axl and seated, drink in hand, there's only one way he's going now. November Rain is nothing short of a masterpiece, the band firing, finally, on every single cylinder as the main man, in his own words, "beats the hell out of that old love song."
Another "old friend" is welcomed onstage in the shape of ex-Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach, possibly one of the few frontmen who can give Axl a run for his money in the helium-scream department. The pair trade lines through My Michelle, before Stradlin's recalled for a run through Patience and a punked-out, four-guitar version of Nightrain which, to coin a phrase, rolls like a freight train right through the middle of this dusty field.
The encores, bravely, begin with another newie, Madagascar, before Brian Mantia kick-drums the seven-piece into a masterful version of Rocket Queen.
"I don't wanna go home," says Axl, before admitting: "that's different to how I felt an hour ago."
Two more new songs – IRS and Chinese Democracy – are aired, both of them whetting appetites for the new album, before Izzy Stradlin comes out once more for the final two-step, a ramshackle, Stonesy version of Useta Love Her and a thunderous reading of Paradise City which lights up the sky with pyrotechnics and ticker-tape cannons.
Guns n' Roses were once proclaimed The World's Most Dangerous Band. On tonight's evidence that danger is still there, which – while at one stage threatening to derail the whole show - has instead focused Axl and the band into delivering one of the all-time great Donington performances.
Yes, Metallica were unstoppable on Saturday night, but they didn’t face the pressure of a world waiting to see them put a foot wrong. What Axl delivered in the face of that expectation was a two-and-a-half-hour masterclass in the light and shade of rock'n'roll.
The new album, Chinese Democracy, is reportedly ready for release. If it lives up to tonight, then Guns n' Roses will once again be the biggest band in the world.