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Guns N’ Roses reunion thrills at MetLife Stadium

Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose, center, and

Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose, center, and guitarists Richard Fortus, left, and Slash play MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Saturday, July 23, 2016, as part of the band's "Not in This Lifetime" tour. Photo Credit: Katarina Benzova

For the past two decades, Guns N’ Roses’ greatness has been discussed with asterisks and the wistful tones of “You should have seen them back in the day.”

The hard-rocking, punk-metal magic of the “Appetite for Destruction”-era Guns was believed lost forever in the band’s 1996 breakup. No one expected to ever see singer Axl Rose, guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan together ever again, which is what makes the current “Not in This Lifetime” tour so special.

And for two hours and 40 minutes at MetLife Stadium Saturday night (and part of Sunday morning), the reunited band smashed all the talk of what could have been with the undeniable proof that this incarnation of Guns N’ Roses is one of the greatest bands in rock history.

Sure, the 54-year-old Rose isn’t as limber, vocally or physically, as he once was. But that hardly matters once he starts his trademark howling with Slash, who celebrated his 51st birthday onstage, by his side.

Like the Rolling Stones’ Glimmer Twins or Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, the flamboyant frontman Rose and the virtuoso guitarist Slash feed off each other, making the whole band better. That was clear as soon as Slash’s raging guitar solo on “Chinese Democracy,” a latter-day Guns’ song which he had no part in writing, morphed into the thunderous opening riffs of “Welcome to the Jungle.”

Slash’s return raised the level of all the “Chinese Democracy” songs, especially “Better,” which now hints at how well the band would have fared during the rap-metal days of The Aughts. More importantly, though, Slash and McKagan’s return raised the level of Rose’s performance, which was sharper and more energetic than in recent years, even in the sweltering heat that had sweat dripping from the entire band and much of the crowd.

This swaggering version of Guns N’ Roses knows it sounds great. They know they belong in the rock pantheon, which is why much of the set showed them taking on rock classics — from Guns’ staples like Wings’ “Live and Let Die” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” to McKagan’s take on The Misfits’ punk classic “Attitude” and Slash and guitarist Richard Fortus’ stunning instrumental twist on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”

They know that “November Rain,” which opened with Rose playing a bit of Eric Clapton’s “Layla” on the piano, is a rock classic in its own right, along with “Patience,” which began with a bit of the Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” and, of course, “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” And Guns N’ Roses delivered them that way. No asterisks. No “what ifs.” Just legendary rock stars before our very eyes.

(Guns N’ Roses play MetLife Stadium again on Sunday night.)

SETLIST: It’s So Easy / Mr. Brownstone / Chinese Democracy / Welcome to the Jungle / Double Talkin’ Jive / Estranged / Live and Let Die / Rocket Queen / You Could Be Mine / Attitude / This I Love / Civil War / Coma / Speak Softly Love (Love Theme from “The Godfather”) / Sweet Child O’ Mine / Better / Out Ta Get Me / Wish You Were Here / Layla >November Rain / Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door / Nightrain // ENCORES: Angie >Patience / The Seeker / Paradise City

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