@ Newcastle Metro Radio Arena, May 23 2012

For the last 15 years it would be fair to say W Axl Rose has relished his one-man mission to disprove the old adage ‘better late, than never’.

During that often turbulent, and largely inactive, decade and a half there have been numerous occasions when ‘better never, than late’ was the more appropriate response.

There were the months, running into years, of non-communication punctuated by the odd ill-judged verbal blast. There was the long-awaited and ultimately underwhelming Chinese Democracy.

And, albeit in keeping with a Guns N Roses tradition going back a quarter of a century, there is still that outdated habit of starting almost every headline set at the time most bands are belting out the encore.

Better never, than late. Or at least that’s how it was.

In 2012 the tide, it seems, is turning. Sure Axl is still a tardy old fellow, strolling onto the stage at 10.40pm without so much as a word of apology. But in the world of the bloated Hollywood icon sorry is often the hardest word to say.

And if the enigmatic individual responsible for a slew of the most memorable anthems in rock n roll history doesn’t do public contrition then a quite stunning three-hour set proved a suitably earnest plea for forgiveness.

That it followed an hour of Thin Lizzy classics was simply the icing on the cake. Ricky Warwick’s affinity with Newcastle is well known – he had spent the 48 hours prior to this gig recording in his favourite city studio – and that connection paid off.

Come the conclusion of a typically triumphant set the former Almighty man had further evidenced the fact that there really is life after Phil Lynott. Lizzy’s not the same without him but it’s time to move on.

That’s a sentiment Axl would surely echo. And significantly the man himself is gradually making progress.

The current incarnation of Rose is not only leaner but visibly keener. An afternoon spent holed up in a Tyneside hospital – where a fractured shoulder was diagnosed – might just have persuaded the Axl of old, already carrying an injury, to pack it in for the week.

Instead he paid a heartfelt tribute to the nurses of Newcastle and proved that, for all the aches, pains and advancing years this particular rock star is in rude health.

Watching Rose plough through a hit-laden set with all the feisty enthusiasm of old reminded those present why GnR were inducted to the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame this year. That Axl snubbed the ceremony is almost irrelevant – he played, and still plays, a part in creating the very epitome of rock n roll.

In 2012 GnR might belong more to the Hall Of Fame than the corridors of infamy but there’s still that inherent danger underpinning the very best of the band’s most familiar calling cards.

Welcome To The Jungle bristles with intent while the brooding Mr Brownstone induced such a surge that Rose was forced to ask his devotees to take a careful step back to avoid a crush. Cynics might suggest it was a smart move to make the floor appear more full: those sympathetic to the GnR frontman would point to Donington and that fateful day in 1988.

With order restored, to an extent, Rose delivered the first truly emotive vocal of the night on Sorry (perhaps that was the apology) and peaked again on the ballads November Rain and Patience. On all three songs the bearded, bandana-wearing diva laid a number of demons to rest and comfortably recaptured the dazzling form that cemented his legendary status in the first place.

Ironically the highlight of the night – as much for Dizzy Reed’s dextrous tinkling as Axl’s powerful pipes – was a sensational rendition of Civil War. GnR’s long history of in-fighting, legal wrangling, tit-for-tat mud slinging and public spats ensures one of the band’s finest compositions now doubles up as an uncomfortable yet startling footnote to an unfortunate past.

Until last night GnR was all about the past. Yet Axl and his hand-picked army of crack musicians finally did enough, on a balmy night by the banks of the Tyne, to suggest there can be a future for one of the world’s biggest bands and a truly global brand.

Better late, than never.

Simon Rushworth

Picture by John Burrows www.ishootgigs.com