Slash and Axl.
Slash and Axl.
Katarina Benzova

Slash and Duff May Be Back, but Guns N' Roses Never Went Away

In 2002, I saw Guns N’ Roses live for the first time. Do the math, and it's clear that this wasn’t a “classic era” for the band, and I didn’t get to see them with Slash, Duff (Izzy/Gilby and Adler/Sorum) first time around. I was a huge fan in the early 1990s, as were all of my friends, but any time the group played my native England (such as the Milton Keynes Bowl shows of ’93), I didn’t have the cash for a ticket. By the time I had some disposable income to splash around, Guns N’ Roses wasn’t classic anymore.

It seems amazing that the 2002 show at London Arena was a full fifteen years ago. It was seventeen years before that, in 1985, that the band formed. And yet it still feels like that was “new” Guns N’ Roses, sometimes facetiously called “Axl N’ Roses,” simply because Slash and Duff, in particular,weren’t there.

This week, Denver will be treated to a show by three-fifths of the Appetite for Destruction lineup. Izzy Stradlin has remained notable in his absence (the general consensus seems to be that he wasn’t offered a fair, or at least an equal, financial deal), and Adler has guested a couple of times, but doubts remain over whether he could last an entire show. Gilby Clarke’s name never comes up, and rumors persist that Matt Sorum and Rose don’t get along.

So alongside Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan, Richard Fortus remains in the band on rhythm guitar, having joined in 2002, Frank Ferrer kept the drum stool that’s been his since 2006, and Melissa Reese came in on keys to play alongside Dizzy Reed. Dizzy’s been in the band since 1990 and the Use Your Illusion albums.

In 2002, only Rose, Fortus, and Reed of the current band were on that stage. Here’s the thing, though, and it’s not going to earn me any “cool” points: That gig was amazing.

Axl Rose in Denver in 2011.
Axl Rose in Denver in 2011.
Eric Gruneisen

Rose had assembled a stellar band that included three guitarists. Richard Fortus, formerly of the Psychedelic Furs and Love Spit Love, had just recently replaced Paul Tobias — a name that still raises the bristles on the necks of many a GnR fan, because many blame him for Slash’s exit. It likely wasn’t as simple as that, but Tobias replaced Gilby Clarke in the band in 1994 and was there to record the cover of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” for the Interview With the Vampire soundtrack. Shortly afterward, Slash was gone. In 2002, Tobias was out too, and Fortus was in.

Also on guitar in 2002 was Robin Finck, who had previously been a member of Nine Inch Nails. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the traditional lead/rhythm guitar pairing of Fortus and Finck would be enough, but Rose had other ideas.

Enter Buckethead.

Aesthetically, it seemed like a huge misstep, not least because Guns N’ Roses went from having an iconic lead guitarist with an iconic top hat in the ranks, to a guy called Buckethead who literally wears a KFC bucket on his head. Add Buckethead’s mop of curly black hair, and it almost looked like Rose was deliberately poking fun at Slash.

In reality, though, the guitarist born Brian Patrick Carroll is one of rock and roll’s great enigmas. Supremely talented and extremely prolific thanks to the many side projects that he’s involved himself with, Buckethead’s transient lifestyle made him difficult to reach, and Rose grew frustrated

On stage in 2002, Buckethead was a revelation. So much so that I almost miss him now. Musically, the guy is a wonder — more John Frusciante than Slash. Including him as a third guitarist turned out to be Rose’s masterstroke. With Finck and Fortus filling the lead and rhythm roles, Buckethead was free to do whatever he wanted. In London, that included robot dancing and a nunchuck solo routine. Right there between two Guns classics.

Chris Pitman played keys alongside Reed, while Bryan “Brain” Mantia (Primus/Godflesh/Buckethead’s band) played drums. But it was the guy playing bass, Duff’s Replacement (pun intended), who pulled the thing together.

Tommy Stinson played with Guns N’ Roses from 1998 to 2016 — an astonishing eighteeen years. Besides Rose and Dizzy Reed, he has more time served in the band than anyone else. Before that, he was a core member of punky, soulful power-pop band the Replacements from 1979 to ’91 (the band re-formed in 2012). His alt-rock band Bash & Pop was also around from 1992 to ’94, and it re-formed last year.

Stinson was and is a fantastic bass player. He’s also a tremendous songwriter, and by some accounts served as musical director for Rose. That night in London, the singer often seemed to be looking over at his bassist for approval. The unlikely pairing gelled beautifully, despite the fact that, as it turned out, the Chinese Democracy album was still seven years away.

My overriding memory of that night is of dancing like a loon to songs that I’d adored since my mid-teens. Only afterward, during the train ride home, did I reflect on the fact that Slash, Duff and the rest were absent; it hadn’t occurred to me during the show, from the moment they had kicked into the opening “Welcome to the Jungle.” I hadn’t missed them at all.

Now we all have the opportunity to see the bulk of the classic lineup. I have my ticket, and I’m sure plenty of people reading this will be going. And popular opinion will reign supreme. This is the real Guns N’ Roses (or at least it would be if Stradlin were there). Finally, the real band is back.

And that’s fair. All reports from the current tour are positive. The band is firing on all cylinders night after night, and the musicians might well enter the studio together.

But the lineup that existed in the mid-2000s wasn’t the shoddy excuse for a band that many would have you believe. Bumblefoot and DJ Ashba are no slouches, either. Strip away the prejudices, and Rose consistently assembled a solid group of musicians, capable of playing the classics well while challenging him artistically.

I’m as happy as anyone that Slash and Duff are back. But Buckethead, Stinson et al. deserve their props.

Now go enjoy the show.

Guns N’ Roses, with Sturgill Simpson, 7 p.m. Wednesday, August 2, Sports Authority Field at Mile High, 1701 Bryant Street, 720-258-3333.

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