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Ever Get the Feeling You’ve (Not) Been Cheated?

For one night at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, the reconstituted Guns N’ Roses didn’t suck–they rocked. The rocked extremely hard. And then they were no more

There was a sense that the entire existence of Guns N’ Roses–a tenuous entity if ever there was one–hung in the balance on December 5, 2002. It was the day of New York City’s first major snowstorm of the season, and the evening of GN’R’s sold-out performance at Madison Square Garden. And 10 p.m. was make-or-break time for the winter of Axl Rose’s discontent.

For most of last year, the elaborately braided Midwestern madman had an appetite for miscalculation: His MTV performance last Augustwas suspect; the subsequent Guns tour sketchy (there was a riot after a no-show in Vancouver, and there were half-empty arenas across the Midwest). Plus, there’s still no glimpse of Chinese Democracy, arguably the only album in rock history to be postponed for more thaneight years. This was it, pretty much: If the New York show tanked, the very idea of blues-based, boogie-ballad, big-hair booze rock was going to be as dead as the diplodocus.

And Axl seemed to realize this.

And Axl seemed to understand that it was finally time to be a band for real.

And for the first time since…well, since forever, Guns N’ Roses went onstage early and played real fucking rock music for two fucking hours (19 songs, three of them new). Against seemingly unfathomable odds, the reinvented Guns N’ Roses were remarkably awesome.

What’s so surprising about the 2002 GN’R assault is that they’re less bloated than the lineup that packed arenas on the Use Your Illusion tours during the early ’90s. “November Rain” still runs in the neighborhood of 12 minutes, but it no longer seems masturbatory; “Patience” is still melodramatic, but that melodrama feels anthemic (and even a tad nostalgic). Instead of just being about attitude and reckless abandon and finding drugs, this neo-Guns is focused on the art of arena-size rock. What always made Rose so interesting was that he overtly strove to be hyper-epic, and that’s the one thing about him that hasn’t changed: On “Madagascar” (a new song), the band flirts with Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” (sonically and sort of geographically); “The Blues” is like Side One of Houses of the Holy performed by mid-period Stevie Wonder; the track “Chinese Democracy” is akin to quasi-political White Zombie. If this ridiculous album ever comes out, I’m going to buy it three times.

Certainly, there is something flummoxing about hearing old Guns music reproduced by seven random strangers who had no part in its creation; and it’s weird to hear a sober Tommy Stinson (ex-Replacements) sing Duff McKagan’s harmonies on “It’s So Easy” and to watch Robin Finck(still in Nine Inch Nails) shred the opening chords of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on a Les Paul that looks exactly like the one Slash used to play on MTV. But they do replicate everything perfectly–maybe too perfectly. The new star of the band is indisputably Buckethead, theavant-garde metallectual who wears a Kentucky Fried Chicken container on his dome and whose enigmatic guitar solos deploy almost every genre of geek culture: Star Wars, nunchakus (!), “robot dancing,” prog rock, bluegrass (!!!), and action figures (which he tossed into the crowd).

What any of this really means remains unclear, particularly since promoter Clear Channel canceled the tour after Rose failed to show upfor the next stop in Philadelphia (causing yet another crowd riot). Perhaps that glam-rock diplodocus is dead, and considering Axl’sinherent insanity (he delivered two ad hominem attacks against New York Times critic Jon Pareles for something written in 1991), it’s hard to imagine Guns N’ Roses ever becoming the relevant, important force they were back when George W. Bush’s dad was dropping smart bombs onBaghdad. But GN’R at MSG did prove one thing: Axl Rose never needed a face full of Botox or Vernon Reid’s hair or five years in the deserts of Sedona. He just needed to try.