Arrowhead Stadium brimmed with joy for several hours Wednesday night. For the first time in 24 years, Axl Rose was performing in Kansas City with Slash and Duff McKagan, two of his fellow Guns N’ Roses co-founders.
The band never broke up, technically, but it suffered enough dysfunction and personnel changes that eventually Rose was the only original member remaining.
Rose brought different incarnations of the band to Kansas City twice. In 2011, he and his gang drew about 7,000 fans to the Sprint Center. In 2013, they failed to sell out the Midland theater, which holds about 3,000. Rose was singing all the songs near and dear to GNR fans, but things weren’t the same. It wasn’t the real band. So the announcement of this year’s reunion — the Not in This Lifetime Tour … — was met with a mix of incredulity and jubilation.
When a band breaks up it also breaks up with its fans, who are left with songs they love, fond memories of live performances and sadness and disappointment over the dissolution. Like children who want their divorced parents to reconcile, fans are caught in the middle of whatever betrayal or irreconcilable differences erupted among band members.
Some bands are forced to change lineups, and they survive the transition: Someone dies or gets ill or incapacitated and someone else is brought in to fill the position. AC/DC is the prime example of that.
The band survived the loss of its original lead singer, Bon Scott, who died in 1980, then its elemental rhythm guitarist, Malcolm Young, who retired in 2014 due to the onset of dementia. This year, Brian Johnson, who replaced Scott, left the band due to severe hearing loss. Rose was hired to fill in for Johnson so the band could finish the remainder of its tour dates.
Angus Young reportedly wants to keep the band going, on the road and in the studio, but it’s hard to imagine fans clamoring to see a group that is essentially one founding member and replacement components — what Guns N’ Roses was for so many years.
Death and illness are involuntary matters of fate that can be accepted and accommodated. When John Bonham died and Led Zeppelin folded its tent, fans understood: They would never be the same band.
But when a band breaks up voluntarily, it’s another matter. For fans, it leaves a void and arouses a yearning for more shows, more music, more memorable moments.
The Police were at the top of their game, commercially, when they went on hiatus in 1984, then disbanded in 1986. The end was abrupt, gravely disappointing to its fans and seemed terminal. Sting declared he should be certified insane if he ever tried to reform the band.
All three members would pursue solo careers, including Sting, who regularly dropped Police songs into his set lists. But it wasn’t the same.
Their 2007 reunion tour, which celebrated their 30th anniversary, was — like the GNR reunion — a great surprise. At the launch of the tour, Sting said, “I just had this instinct, this desire, to call the guys up and say, ‘Let’s give this a go.’ ”
When a band dissolves as abruptly as the Police did, it can leave behind loose ends and unresolved sentiments, like the phantom limb syndrome that follows an amputation.
In 2003, the Lawrence band the Anniversary was riding high, having released a highly acclaimed second album, “Your Majesty,” on Vagrant Records. They were touring relentlessly and planning the follow-up album when, due to internal drama, they broke up.
Band members went their separate ways. Singer/guitarist Josh Berwanger started the band the Only Children and, most recently, Berwanger. Singer/keyboardist Adrianne (Verhoeven) DeLanda now fronts the San Francisco band Extra Classic.
But the Anniversary’s unfinished business never completely rested, and last summer the two were on the same bill at a show in San Francisco, where they played an Anniversary song, “Siren Sings.” It reignited something that had been dormant for 13 years, and last month the band announced a reunion tour that will include a stop in September at the Bottleneck in Lawrence.
For both, the band, or the idea of the band, remained alive because of the songs.
“We broke up with a lot left on the table,” Berwanger said. “I ignored the songs for a very long time because of all the emotions wrapped up in listening to them. … It was hard to listen, knowing we had something really great going on and it slipped from underneath us.”
“The songs stayed true in that they were written during important and formative times in our lives,” DeLanda said. “Though we all grew and changed, the songs are like time capsules … and they bring back memories that I’m sure are different for all of us. Even the feelings about the memories evolve.
Revisiting and rehearsing those songs and memories has been remedial and redemptive.
“It had been 13 years since we played some of those songs, even 15 for a few,” Berwanger said. “After the first three, it felt really great, like we had never stopped playing them. It was really wild to be in the same room for practice, yet it felt like we’d been hanging out since the last day we’d all seen each other.”
“Sometimes it’s bittersweet, sometimes emotional, sometimes hilarious even,” DeLanda said. “You find your place back in that world and it feels totally natural but also fit it into your new existence. We all wanted this, so it was very intentional and feels right.”
You got that same sense Wednesday night at Arrowhead — that the band was in it for more than a cash grab; that they wanted a reconciliation, a renewal of vows with their diehard fans; that it felt right. Slash in particular looked like a guy who was back home, back in a place he’d been missing.
“It’s the singer, not the song,” the Rolling Stones sang. But the most memorable music experience feels like something different: It’s the singer, the songs, the version of the band that coined our first impressions and the memories conjured with every listen.