Music Matters: That other time Guns N’ Roses performed here – Times Union

Guns N’ Roses will be at SPAC this Friday and it’s a big deal.

The lineup featuring founding members singer Axl Rose, lead guitarist Slash and ultracool bassist Duff McKagan will be making its first appearance in the Capital Region since reuniting in 2016 to conquer stadiums worldwide.

Roses with Dirty Honey

 When: 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1

 Where: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs

Tickets: $56.48 for four lawn seats-$885 for Paradise City Platinum Lounge seats

For more info:


This has inspired reminiscing about Gn’R’s 1988 SPAC set, where the band’s opening borderline-riotous performance rendered headliner Aerosmith irrelevant.

But you don’t hear people talking about the last time the Guns N’ Roses name played the 518.

That came Nov.  27, 2002, to the Pepsi Arena (now MVP Arena) in Albany. Whereas 25,000 people witnessed the original lineup tear through SPAC, about a quarter of that were on hand to witness Rose’s controversial and frequently derided revamp of the Gn’R name. I was one of those in attendance.

Rose debuted the new lineup and announced the tour a couple months prior with a bizarre performance to close out that year’s MTV Video Music Awards. National audiences saw a roster that included the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson on bass and Nine Inch Nails’ Robin Finck (still decked out in full industrial-Goth garb) playing one of the three guitar parts. Slash’s replacement, Buckethead, was a 7-foot-tall enigma with plastic white mask on his face and upside-down KFC bucket over his head with a sticker reading “Funeral” emblazoned across it. Then there was Rose, rocking baggy leather pants and a football jersey instead of a pair of biker shorts, hair fashioned into a set of incomprehensible and incomprehensibly dense braids/cornrows.

The off-putting appearance created a public perception that the once-mighty Guns N’ Roses was reduced to a mere freakshow, eccentric Axl Rose and hired hands that were the musical equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys.

Heading into the Albany show, that image hadn’t really changed. Opening night of the tour in Vancouver ended in a riot when Rose failed to show and the promoter canceled. The next 11 shows were met with erratic audience sizes, delayed start times and mixed reviews.

At first, the Pepsi Arena concert seemed destined to be added to the list of cancellations and disappointments. Opening acts CKY and former Beastie Boys DJ Mix Master Mike were done by 9 p.m. and the stage was set for Gn’R by 9:15 or so. People started getting restless around 9:45. By 10, dueling chants of “Axl” and “asshole” had commenced. Soon after that, only the latter was chanted. I had gone to this concert alone, as the amount of 17-year-olds emotionally invested in Rose or the Buckethead mythos consisted solely of me. As the vibe shifted and the possibility of a riot started to seem plausible, I started to wonder if maybe the peers who thought it was a little weird for my excitement over this show were onto something.

Turns out, I wasn’t weird at all (for going to the show, at least), as around 10:30 the lights went out and a familiar voice shrieked, “Do you know where the (expletive) you are,” and Guns N’ Roses crushed “Welcome to the Jungle.”

Over the course of two hours, the Rose-colored incarnation of Guns N’ Roses ripped through the bulk of the seminal “Appetite for Destruction,” some of the hits from “Use Your Illusion” and a handful of new songs from the mythical, then-unreleased “Chinese Democracy” album. While the classic lineup played it loose and bluesy, this roster performed the material with brutal precision and focus. Buckethead was clinical, effortlessly playing the solos to “November Rain” and “Paradise City” and delivering an extended solo spot that featured him breakdancing, swinging some nunchucks, playing the theme to “Star Wars” on his guitar and handing out Transformers action figures to fans in the front row.

Rose was classic Rose. He did the shimmy, the weird snake dance he’s been doing since 1987 and sang his butt off. If the exceedingly late start time was a callback to his early 1990s reputation for tardiness, his stage banter reflected his vaunted mercurial nature. If you were scouring Gn’R blogs in 2002 like some people (me), you would have known that at prior stops, Rose was pretty quiet on stage and went through his set in workmanlike fashion. He was downright loquacious in Albany, offering up a few quips between songs and preceding “Patience” by uncorking a rant for the ages about the media coverage for the tour and his integrity vis a vis his then-former bandmates.

Albany appeared to mark a turning point for Rose and the band. Not necessarily here, where the Times Union panned the show, but in terms of national perception. Four out of the next five shows were sold out and Guns N’ Roses received rave reviews for that fifth one, a rousing performance Dec. 5 at Madison Square Garden. And then it all went up in smoke when Rose no-showed the next night’s sold-out concert in Philadelphia, leading to another riot and the cancellation of the last month of the tour.

Now the Pepsi Arena concert is considered, along with that MSG show, to be one of the top two dates on the ill-fated run. You can judge for yourself by watching it on YouTube, just search “Guns N’ Roses Albany 2002” and there are multiple links to the entire show. It’s worth checking out. Without the controversy over the lineup weighing over it, drama that’s quaint now when one can see Lynyrd Skynyrd perform without a single original member, the concert plays like a tight, hard rock show.

I’m looking forward to seeing Guns N’ Roses on Friday at SPAC. The past several years have been marked by on-time starts and powerhouse three-hour sets. If those precedents hold, it should be a memorable evening and a chance to hear some of the greatest rock songs ever made.

But for me, that 2002 run will always stand out not only because of how awesome I think that Pepsi Arena gig was, but also because of the questions it inspires. I find it to be one of the great “what ifs” in classic rock. What if Rose hadn’t blown the whole thing up just as it was gaining momentum and credibility? Would Slash and Duff be back in the band? Would people have even cared if they weren’t?

To quote the chorus of the classic Gn’R song “My Michelle,” “Well, well, well, you just can’t tell.”

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