gnr-axl.jpg
Matthew Lamb
Guns N' Roses

Friday, Dec. 16

Key Arena

Pretty much everything about Guns N' Roses has changed since that last time I saw

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Duff McKagan Reunites with Guns N' Roses Friday Night at Key Arena

gnr-axl.jpg
Matthew Lamb
Guns N' Roses

Friday, Dec. 16

Key Arena

Pretty much everything about Guns N' Roses has changed since that last time I saw them, which was in the early 1990s on a co-headlining tour with Metallica. Everything except Axl Rose, the one constant in the band's history, and the thing that links the version of GNR that headlined the Key Arena Friday night and the one that released 1987's seminal Appetite for Destruction, the best-selling debut album of all-time--and one of the best debuts of all-time, period.

There were shades of the Rose of yore, like the indulgent three-hour set the band played, but gone was the slithery frontman whose volatile temper caused him to attack concert goers and cancel gigs resulting in riots. In his place, a blinged-out, fedora'd, sunglasses-wearing elder statesman who seems to have finally simmered down a bit as he closes in on 50. He still commanded the stage like he always has, but Rose was a gracious ring leader, giving each of the band's seven members a moment in the spotlight and talking only briefly throughout the band's long set.

Also long gone are Slash, Izzy, Duff and Steven Adler, who comprised the band's classic lineup, and though the current Guns N' Roses are a completely different beast from the original incarnation, Rose and his seven-piece group (three guitarists, two keyboardists, one bass player, one drummer), put on an energetic set, entertaining the crowd with a cavalcade of material, leaning most heavily on the band's thirteen-years-in-the-making Chinese Democracy and their 1987 debut, but also including a few covers, like a pair of AC/DC songs ("Whole Lotta Rosie" and "Riff Raff"), as well as a few the band are known for ("Live and Let Die" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"). If the band's original lineup was a freight train forever in danger of riding off the rails, the new lineup is a hybrid SUV, a versatile and practical ride with more bells and whistles but one that gets you there all the same.

The show's highlight, however, didn't involve the band's current lineup, but it's classic one. Hometown hero and original Guns bassist Duff McKagan, whose current band Loaded opened the show, joined Axl on stage, marking the first time the pair have played together on American soil in 17 years. The duo had a similar reunion in London last year, but it didn't change the fact that the Seattle crowd felt like they were being treated to something special and rare.

"I'd like to bring out my friend and yours," Axl said, as he welcomed Duff to the stage for a rocking version of "You Could Be Mine." With his bleached hair, lanky frame and white Fender bass slung low, Duff looked remarkably close to his 1987 self as he sang backup vocals with the rest of the band. With GNR soon to be inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame, the four-minute mini-reunion may serve as the closest thing to what many fans speculate will never happen: A full-blown reunion featuring the band's Appetite-era lineup. Regardless, the Key Arena crowd cheered enthusiastically for Duff's appearance then promptly took out their Smartphones en masse to capture the performance for an immediate upload to YouTube.

Loaded's opening set got the crowd warmed up, even if most of the audience didn't know the band's material, which was a synthesis of McKagan's various influences, landing somewhere between sleazy Hollywood hard rock and early punk. The band even included a GNR tune in their set, the McKagan-penned "So Fine" from Use Your Illusion II, as well as The Misfits' "Attitude" which concluded it.

As the evening stretched on, the set began to feel more like one from Bruce Springsteen than GNR, and though it hardly needs saying, Chinese Democracy is no Born to Run. Each of the band's members was given time to solo and play a favorite song. Keyboardist Dizzy Reed jammed on The Who's "Baba O'Reilly" while guitarist Richard Fortus soloed over the "James Bond Theme." The band also took several extended jam sessions which showcased the musicianship of all of its members, particularly its three guitarists--Fortus, DJ Ashba and Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal--all of whom bounced around the stage like pinballs, ricocheting off speakers, the drum riser and each other.

By the time the band finally left the stage for their encore it was north of 1 a.m., and another half hour before the set concluded. Though the Key wasn't at its capacity (one entire tier was curtained off), the thousands in attendance remained loyal, staying until the very end despite the late hour. And though the mini-reunion with Duff was certainly a highlight, it was the band's enduring material that was the real star. In the nearly 25 years since its release, the Appetite songs are still as vital as the day they were released. You know where you still are? In the jungle, baby.

BTW: During the bridge breakdown of "Welcome to the Jungle" Axl told the Key Arena crowd that the song had been written in Seattle.

Deja vu: Guitarist DJ Ashba sported a familiar look to GNR fans: A big hat pulled down over his eyes and a lit cigarette dangling from his lips.

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