G. A. Casebeer
On an absolutely glorious summer night in Seattle, the rock world turned its attention to the loudest football stadium in the world for a concert that many people have waited nearly a lifetime for. The concert of course was Guns N’ Roses, which on its own was highly anticipated, but when it was announced recently that a band that literally made its mark just a few blocks away in Pioneer Square, Alice in Chains, would be offering direct support, this show was all a lot of folks in the Emerald City were talking about. Throw in Seattle’s The Pink Slips, and what you have is a bill that has potential to blow some minds, and that happened and then some.
Let’s start with Grace McKagan and her band The Pink Slips. Although most of the crowd weren’t yet in their seats, and a fair amount of them knew nothing about her and that she’s Duff McKagan’s daughter, or what to expect, the band didn’t waste the opportunity to open what was probably the biggest deal in Seattle this year. McKagan prowled around the stage in full command of the people that were there early, and delivered a straight-up set of rock ‘n’ roll. I looked away for a second near the end of her set, and when I turned back to the band, she was covered in blood. I’m assuming it was fake, because there was a lot of it, but it was a killer way to end the set in the town she went to college in.
Alice in Chains is not used to being the opener for concerts, but they were a pretty great selection for this one. CenturyLink Field was still at least half-empty when Jerry Cantrell came out wearing a Seahawks jersey and bass player Mike Inez wearing a number 12 jersey. AIC’s frontman William DuVall and drummer Sean Kinney rounded out the band, and while they aren’t the same Alice in Chains that they were with Layne Staley, there’s a lot to love about this band. Me personally, I gave up the “Layne’s not in it, so it’s not AIC” notion a long time ago, but if I’m being honest, when it was announced they would get another singer after Layne, I wasn’t fond of the idea. But, I gave DuVall the chance to make me like them with him and he did not disappoint, and I am a huge fan of this lineup just as I was back in the day.
As the grunge icons ripped into their set, a lot of people made a mad dash for their seats, and the hour-long offering gave the fans most of the songs they’d expect. “Would?” had the crowd screaming at the top of their lungs, and not many people were sitting for “Man in the Box,” off the 1990 album Facelift, which found Spanaway native Cantrell using his now famous talk box and shredding as only he can. At one point Jerry yelled in to the mic “SEA______, SEA______, SEA_______” and the crowd volleyed back with the now famous “HAWKS” as an answer. They ended their 60-minute set with “Rooster,” and the crowd — the ones that partake in adults beverages — were sufficiently lubricated and feeling the love the band was dishing out.
On to the main event. For me, this concert was a huge deal because, while the mid to late 70s was when I started to REALLY love rock music, the 80s were a magical time. I’m not ashamed to admit at all that I liked “hair metal” (okay, most of it) in the beginning, but after a while, it started to feel like some of the bands were only hopping on the trend because it was so popular, sort of like country singers that only wear a cowboy hat to look the part, or, gasp, grunge bands that wore flannel only because that what people expected them to wear. In my travels, flannel was never a huge fashion accessory around here but that’s a story for another day.
For many of us that were part of the “butt rock” thing, Guns had the unique look that we were looking for, but they also had the chops to give us a healthy dose of face-melting rock n’ roll that we were longing for, and there was absolutely nothing that felt fake about them. I remember the summer of 1987 when Appetite for Destruction was released, I bought both the album and cassette at the same time, and literally no one could get enough of this band. In fact, we’d have to hide the album after a a few rotations at parties in Bellingham, otherwise it would literally get played all night long. Sadly, I wasn’t ever in a spot back then where it worked out that I could see them live, but last night in Seattle more than made up for that.
It was still over 70 degrees out when at exactly 8:55, this storied band took the stage in a nearly packed-out football field, and while this isn’t the full original lineup, not many of the 44,000 fans inside the stadium cared. This potent lineup was Axl Rose, Duff McKagan, Slash, Dizzy Reed on keyboard, Richard Fortus on rhythm guitar, Frank Ferrer on drums, and Seattle’s own Melissa Reese on keyboard and backing vocals. The show started 5 minutes after the scheduled start time, which, by old Guns N’ Roses standards, was right on time, or even ahead of schedule.
Even though everyone had seats (except the people that shelled out big digits to get in the pit), very few people sat down for this one. As the band tore off into the set-opener “It’s So Easy” from the Appetite for Destruction album, the brightly lit stage was awash in every color under the spectrum. They followed that up with a spot-on version of another crowd-favorite from that album, “Mr Brownstone.” Four songs in, as Slash teased and toyed with the unmistakable opening riff to “Welcome to the Jungle,” Axl finally belted out “You know where you are?” and the crowd went batshit crazy. The band was on fire, and it was pretty clear that Melissa Reese on the keys was having a good time. Decked out in Hawks colors, she could be seen head-banging along with a good portion of the crowd.
There were so many highlights for me that it would take several thousand words to describe it all, but if I had to pick some bigger moments, I’d have to say the instrumental jam of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and “Layla” from Derek and The Dominos ranks right up there. As Slash stood above the stage on the riser behind the drums, flanked by second guitarist Richard Fortus, they played the unmistakable guitar parts from the Pink Floyd classic, while stage hands working in the darkness readying a piano and placing it directly center-stage for Axl to jump in with the last instrumental parts of “Layla,” the song made famous by Eric Clapton and the legendary late slide guitar wizard Duane Allman. Hometown boy Duff McKagan stood next to Axl hammering out the bass parts with his instrument adorned with Seahawk’s stickers and the Prince symbol. It was a great mashup.
With Axl already seated behind the piano, it seemed like a good time to roll out “November Rain” from the 1991 album Use Your Illusion, and the band delivered an amazing rendition of that epic song. Axl’s voice was right on the money, and with his hands adorned with all sorts of jewelry, played the piano parts nearly note for note. The last song of the main set found the band dropping a blistering delivery of “Nightrain,” also from the Appetite album, which, by my count was the seventh song from that album that they played. See the setlist in Tacoma Weekly HERE.
The four-song encore started with “Catcher in the Rye” from 2008’s Chinese Democracy, followed by the epic ballad “Don’t Cry” from Use Your Illusion. The legendary rockers then burst into a badass version of “The Seeker,” made popular back in 1970 by British rock legends The Who, and they ended the night with a big fucking exclamation point, none other than “Paradise City.” As the song and the show were coming to a close, CenturyLink Field exploded into a sea of fireworks and confetti, people hugging, people singing, most of them realizing they will likely never witness this spectacle again, at least not in this lifetime.
As everyone could’ve predicted, Guns N’ Roses reuniting with Slash for a full tour was a pretty big goddamn deal. Obviously it was going to be a huge event among the aging, deteriorating rockers that grew up with Appetite for Destruction and the Use Your Illusion duology, but even among the younger, teenage crowd that grew up with GNR’s best material retroactively through commercial rock radio and Slash’s appearance in Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, the Not in This Lifetime Tour was a historic event, leading to Guns N’ Roses headlining Coachella and, eventually, making their way to Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, tapping Alice in Chains and Duff McKagan’s offspring’s band The Pink Slips to provide opening support.
Going into Friday night’s show, I admit my bar of expectations wasn’t set much higher than waist-level. I’ve seen plenty of videos of late-era Guns N’ Roses performing live, and the results have almost never been pretty. The band themselves, with what ever lineup they had, always managed to sound great — it’s Guns N’ Roses, how could they not? However, Axl Rose always comes across in recorded live performances (most of which have been mercifully removed from the Internet) as a necessary hindrance bringing the band down with him, often sounding like someone’s smoker grandpa trying really hard to sound like Axl Rose, which is surprising considering even on Guns N’ Roses’ most fantastic material, Axl Rose always sang like he was trying to shout at someone from all the way across the room and dislodge a dog brush from his larynx at the same time. They sounded better in their Coachella performance, which I watched livestreamed, but since it only showed two songs out of sequence before cutting out, it led me to believe that these could’ve been the two songs where they actually sounded good, cutting out the rest to make people not think the worst. Color me surprised, though, because Guns N’ Roses’ CenturyLink Field performance blew me and any other skeptics away in a sea of explosive performances and a higher performance budget than the entire recording of Chinese Democracy.
Genealogy and nepotism aside, the Pink Slips served as probably the best local opener the show could’ve asked for. I’d never seen Grace McKagan and company live before, but I’ve been following their music for a little while now, finding it a fun and attitude-heavy delight in our often despondent and self-serious rock scene. They entered from stage right well-mannered and quiet, but before long busted right into their high-energy and four-to-the-floor rock music, which sounded entirely natural in a giant arena. Grace McKagan completely owned that stage, lending her eccentric singing and shouting to their New Romantic-esque dance-rock. As I watched Grace jump all around the stage, covering herself head-to-toe in fake blood, I couldn’t help but reflect on how badly this band needs to eventually get to the level where they can be headlining arenas this big.
Before long, Alice in Chains took to the stage, performing in Seattle for the second month in a row, having just played a sold-out Paramount Theatre in July. Opening their set with a great rendition of “Hollow” off The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, the crowd was pretty minuscule when they first started, but quickly the seats packed out as they wasted no time going into favorites “Them Bones” and “Down in a Hole.” While William DuVall isn’t overflowing with personality in his vocal performances, you can tell he really loves performing with the band, and he sounds good and fitting fronting their tracks. Their set felt tragically short at just an hour, but they went full jukebox mode in the time they had available, closing out with an epic string of songs that included “Man in the Box,” “Would?,” and “Rooster” as a fitting set-closer.
Various types of CGI guns firing loudly into the distance signaled the beginning of Guns N’ Roses’ performance, as the members entered one by one to a level of applause and cheering other bands could only dream of. There was no safer bet for an audience-pleasing opening than an Appetite cut, and luckily the band delivered on this two-fold with “It’s So Easy” followed by “Mr. Brownstone.” From the first notes, the band played their songs to perfection — every solo, every drum fill, everything hit with the impact of lightning. Sparks, fireworks and fire shot up from every orifice as the band ripped through a greatest-hits montage of a live performance.
Most surprising to me, Axl Rose sounded pretty good fronting the revived band. “Welcome to the Jungle” is always somewhat of a ritualistic trial by fire for Axl’s vocal capabilities on any given night, but every arena-filling shriek was pretty true to the records, and he managed this while still working the stage and dripping enough sweat to fill whole water bottles. The addition of Seattle keyboardist and backing vocalist Melissa Reese to the lineup was a fantastic addition, as she backed Axl’s vocals up and complimented them rather than compensated for them. I was worried that the addition of a younger vocalist was so that they could have someone hit the required high notes and make it seem like the washed-up lead singer is more capable than they actually are (see also: 2010s Mötley Crüe), but Reese made for a strong component of the band’s sound, and added some extra exuberance and energy to the performance aspect.
Two-and-a-half hours is probably a long time to be expected to sit through most musical performers, but Guns N’ Roses’ performance was so strong that we likely could’ve been there for four hours and have still wanted more, as there were enough unique detours in the performance to keep it interesting. Abstracted and prolonged guitar solos are usually perfect bathroom break material for me, but Slash’s guitar solo in medias res before “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was the perfect segue into that song, and his instrumental duet with rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” made for one of the most unexpected, but beautiful and welcome moments of the night.
While I think there was cause for skepticism in the resurrected Guns N’ Roses reunion tour, the band still knows how to crush it. Guns N’ Roses is just one of those bands, a band that encapsulates what people love about older rock music, and a band that’s still incredibly relevant today. With “Paradise City” blaring from the massive stage, and as a full fireworks show went off, along with massive amounts of confetti and strobe lights, you couldn’t help but take in just how purposeful this night was to everybody standing in that arena.