On July 2, 1992, Guns N’ Roses played their first show in Portugal, at Lisbon’s Estádio José Alvalade. Soundgarden and Faith No More were along for the ride, and the latter’s singer, Mike Patton, was feeling typically frisky. After encouraging those in attendance to throw their garbage at the stage, he then scampered about on all fours as it rained in, eagerly stuffing debris into his mouth like a hungry gibbon feasting at a city dump. It would have been a thrilling, chaotic climax to the evening were Faith No More headlining, but they weren’t. Guns N’ Roses followed, and Axl Rose wasn’t so keen on either the littering or the incoming missiles. He left the stage three times during the band’s set – once for 15 minutes – and local music paper Blitz pictured Axl on the cover of their next issue with a pink cartoon ribbon in his hair and the word ‘MARICAS!’ printed in giant type. The translation: Sissy. Ouch.
So it’s fair to say that Axl’s appointment as AC/DC’s stand-in vocalist was greeted with even more teeth-gnashing in Portugal than took place elsewhere. Tickets were returned, but others took up the slack, and despite a day-long rainstorm that turns much of the venue into silt, with forlorn-looking punters huddled together under trees to protect themselves from the deluge, the anticipation is tangible.
The show is almost identical to earlier dates on the tour. It’s the same intro, with a meteor barrelling towards Earth as a countdown intones, before the band arrive in a storm of pyro and Rock Or Bust begins. There’s Angus, scuttling and strutting in the familiar school uniform. There’s Cliff and Stevie, legs splayed, backs to amps, heads down, working. There’s Chris Slade, keeping a fierce rhythm. And yes, there’s Axl Rose, in bandana and cowboy hat, on a leather throne, his elevated medical boot adorned by a lightning flash. It looks ludicrous, and there’s no way it should work.
But it does. It really works. Axl scores highest for technical merit on the Brian songs, where he concentrates so hard on hitting the right notes there’s little room for improvisation – although he does introduce the enticing prospect of ‘Portuguese thighs’ into You Shook Me All Night Long – and highest for artistic impression on the Bon numbers, where he introduces a lascivious swagger to Sin City and Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be. It’s a ferocious, near-faultless performance, and he appears to be enjoying himself. He even says so, following the climax of Back In Black with a delighted “Woo hoo! That was fun!” There’s little interaction between Angus and Axl, but occasionally, as the guitarist scampers past, a smile crosses Axl’s lips, and he looks as if there’s nowhere else he’d rather be. What Guns N’ Roses reunion?
Two songs have been added to the set: Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation is wheeled out for the first time in over a decade, and Riff Raff – a song Guns N’ Roses have played live more times than its authors have – is performed for the first time since the Highway To Hell tour. But despite these surprise additions, and the bewildering spectacle, it all feels like business as usual. AC/DC roll on like AC/DC do.
Perhaps it’s time for Axl to be forgiven for the sins of the past. YouTube footage of earlier shows on the Rock Or Bust tour suggests Brian Johnson was struggling, but at 68 being Brian Johnson for two hours every night would be tough work for anyone. Rock’n’roll? It’s a younger man’s game.