Thursday, November 13, 2008

AC/DC Is Still Rocking After All These Years

Pure energy. That is about the most succinct way to sum up an AC/DC concert, and the description certainly applied last night, as the band played the first of two sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden.

Hitting the road for the first time since 2003, AC/DC ran through an 18-song, 100-minute set that sprinkled five cuts from its solid new CD Black Ice amongst the band's hard rock standards from its 35-year career. Many of the elements fans expect to see in an AC/DC show were present and accounted for: the giant inflatable bimbo bouncing to the beat during "Whole Lot of Rosie"; lead singer Brian Johnson swinging from the rope/clapper of a giant bell during the opening of "Hells Bells"; lead guitarist Angus Young performing a striptease out of his English schoolboy uniform while the band kept a 12-bar-blues beat during "The Jack"; Young gyrating on an elevated hydraulic platform at the center of the arena's floor seats (and elsewhere) while soloing to the "Ballroom Blitz" drum beat of main-set finale "Let There Be Rock"; Young emerging from below the stage wearing devil horns for "Highway to Hell"; Young suggestively thrusting his guitar between Johnson's legs while churning out riffs; rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young and bass player Cliff Williams walking in unison to and from the microphones at the front of the stage to sing their backup parts; and the firing of antique cannons during the show-closer "For Those About to Rock." And for this tour, the band added a giant train crashing onto the stage from behind at the end of an animated short film that kicked off the show, leading into the opening number, "Rock and Roll Train."

But the continuity was a good thing, since there is no reason to mess with a winning formula. Angus Young, 53, and Johnson, impossibly 61, seem to be more than just defying their ages; they are kicking time's ass. Young, as always, was in constant motion, marching in place, running around the stage, falling onto his back, and Chuck Berry duckwalking, all while continuing to lay down iconic guitar licks. Johnson, too, moved constantly, mostly playing to the sides of the stage or walking down the long ramp to the center of the floor, ceding the center stage spotlight to Young. (AC/DC is one of the few bands whose central performer is the lead guitarist, not the lead singer, although that is more a testament to Young's chops and manic stage presence than any kind of knock on the dynamic Johnson.)

The spectacle of an AC/DC show is awesome. The band does a great job of walking the fine line between cheesy fun and just cheesy. And the pyrotechnics are unleashed in measured doses, so that there is no overkill effect. They make each blast matter. I'm not sure there is much out there to contend with the power of the antique cannons firing during "For Those About to Rock." With all due respect to Pink Floyd's pig, which I've seen live, and Tommy Lee's spinning drum kit, which I've only watched on television, I think "For Those About to Rock" is my favorite spectacle concert moment, with the song's ominous guitar lines, Johnson's "Fire!" exclamations, and the firing and recoiling cannons all coming together into a perfect fit.

But if AC/DC was only spectacle, you could go to a laser show and save a ton of money. What makes an AC/DC concert a must-see event is the combination of spectacle and great hard-driving rock music. There is not a lot of variety to the band's songs, but they somehow manage to give each one just enough individual personality so that it all doesn't start to run into one long mush (like Cure concerts do for me). AC/DC may reuse key words in their song titles ("Back in Black" and "Black Ice"; "The Jack" and "Big Jack"; "Highway to Hell," "Hells Bells" and "Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be"; and "For Those About to Rock," "Let There Be Rock" and "Rock and Roll Train" ... it could have been a "rock" foursome if they had played "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)"), but the performances never felt repetitive.

The band has written some of the most enduring hard rock songs, and they are as heavy and spooky (as appropriate) today as they were when they were released. The ominous openings of "Hells Bells" and "For Those About to Rock" still send shivers up your spine, and the thundering riffs of "Highway to Hell," "TNT," "Dirty Deeds," "You Shook Me All Night Long" and "Back and Black" still send your head bobbing along to the beat.

And, above all else, an AC/DC show is fun. The entire crowd was on its feet from the first minute to the last, singing, pumping fists, and moving to Cliff Rudd's thundering drum beats and Young's guitar explosions. Even with five new songs in the set, there wasn't a this-is-a-good-time-to-hit-the-rest-room moment the whole night. The band generates a momentum that other acts would envy.

Since this is the fifth time I've seen AC/DC (the first was in October 1988), I couldn't help but compare the shows in my head. And I found that nearly nothing has been lost despite the band members getting up in age. The only real thing I could come up with was that Young used to hop on Johnson's shoulders for a guitar solo, which didn't happen last night. The band still sounds great, and Johnson's yowl of a voice, while maybe a trifle thinner than it used to be, still serves the music well. Johnson handles the Bon Scott-era numbers as readily as the ones he performed originally, and his knack of knowing when to engage and when to step back remains intact.

Don't get me wrong, I understand that it's hard to describe the appeal of an AC/DC show to someone who has never seen one. After all, it admittedly reads weird that a highlight of the night was a scrawny, pasty 53-year-old, sweat-covered man doing a striptease out of an English schoolboy uniform. But all the elements somehow work, melding into as good of an arena rock show as you'll ever see. I guess that's why there is no band quite like AC/DC.

And I only hope I'm as energetic as Brian Johnson is when I'm 61.

Opening act The Answer, from Northern Ireland, performed an energetic and tight 30-minute set. The band members are clearly devotees of Led Zeppelin, from the shaggy-haired blonde frontman to the Les Paul-playing guitarist to the cement-fisted drummer, and the Zeppelin-esque songs, filled with heavy blues riffs and near-falsetto dramatic vocals, feel like unreleased tracks from Led Zeppelin I. There is little original about The Answer, but the members' performance chops and decent songs made for an entertaining set.

Set List
Madison Square Garden
November 12, 2008

Rock 'N Roll Train
Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be
Back In Black
Big Jack
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
Black Ice
The Jack
Hells Bells
Shoot to Thrill
War Machine
Anything Goes
You Shook Me All Night Long
Whole Lotta Rosie
Let There Be Rock
Highway To Hell
For Those About To Rock