When the NFC championship game went into overtime, the Guns N’ Roses fans standing in the bar area of Copps Coliseum knew it was going to be a long night. They figured Axl Rose was probably doing the same thing they were – watching the game on the nearest TV.

It was already past 10 p.m. and the opening bands – two spirited Canadian cowbell bangers called Danko Jones and Sebastian Bach – had finished their sets a while ago.

When would Guns N’ Roses actually take the stage?

The question had been at the back of everyone’s mind since the doors of Copps Coliseum opened at 7 p.m. It was a reasonable one, considering Axl’s notorious reputation for late starts and occasional no-shows. He has actually developed tardiness into a form of stage schtick. Real fans knew what to expect. But it was Sunday night, after all, and more than a few of devotees had made the mistake of bringing their bleary-eyed children. (What were they thinking?)

Mercifully, the Saints finished off the Vikings in short order.  Guns N’ Roses fans downed their beers and proceeded back to their seats. It wasn’t until 10:30 p.m. that the lights finally dimmed and the rock ’n’ roll spectacular known as a Guns N’ Roses concert finally got under way.

All eyes focused on Axl as the band struck up the opening chords of Chinese Democracy, the title song of the album he inexplicably struggled for more than 15 years to complete.  Thank goodness his hair had been freed from the cornrows he had sported on earlier tours. His thinning hair poked out under a black fedora, red kerchief and dark sunglasses. His striped shirt was unbuttoned enough to show a large crucifix guarding his chest hairs.

Axl looked good for a 47-year-old rocker. His trademark falsetto screech sounded even better. 

So it was surprising to see only about 5,500 people in attendance for what turned out to be an outstanding two-and-a-half-hour performance.  The upper tier of Copps was curtained off and there were empty seats in the back of the bottom tier. This band, in another incarnation featuring a guitarist named Slash, had once been at the top of world. Perhaps 15 years is just too long for some fans to wait.

Naturally, Axl was the centre of attention. All the other original band members have long since fled to other bands.  But it didn’t take long to realize Axl had assembled a highly skilled seven-piece set of replacements to back him.

Three lead guitarists flashed notes around the hockey rink like there was no tomorrow.  Richard Fortus scowled through his greasy hair and slung his guitar low, à la Keith Richards. Ron ‘Bumblefoot’  Thal  favoured a double-kneck model, à la Jimmy Page. 

The band’s newest star on guitar, DJ Ashba, sported a sparkly Gibson and crowned his head with a black top-hat (not quite as tall as the one Slash used to fashion with the GNR, but close). All three were granted spotlight solos, as did piano player Dizzy Reed. Axl seemed to be proving a point. He could get by fine without the old band, thanks.

With the help of a pyrotechnic battery,  they burned their way through much of the Chinese Democracy album, interspacing it with old faithfuls like Sweet Child o’ Mine, Welcome to the Jungle and Night Train, as well as a couple of covers (Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die, and Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door).  Axl pranced and preened, tossing his microphone stand around like it was a drum major’s baton. He worked up a big enough sweat to force at least five shirt changes. All  the while, the guitar onslaught continued. It was a grand show.

Still, it would have been better if GNR had started a little earlier.  The crowd wasn’t quite as perky at 1 a.m. for the Paradise City grand finale as it could have been. Maybe it’s time for Axl to change his schtick. His fans are growing older, too. And few can keep his privileged hours.