Concert Review

AC/DC Delivers The Hits at U.S. Airways Center

You may be wondering: Can a shirtless guy in his mid-50s who dresses in purple velour shorts still rock like he did in 1979? I know I asked myself the same question before AC/DC took the stage Wednesday night at U.S. Airways Center. But now I'm done doubting my aging heroes. Like other dinosaurs I've seen in the past decade or so -- Pete Townshend, Johnny Cash, Nick Lowe, Deniz Tek of Radio Birdman, John Doe and Billy Zoom of X, Ross the Boss of the Dictators -- Angus Young is as deadly as ever (even if he doesn't look so hot on two-story-tall video screens). 

I got a kick out of the scene at the arena. I'm not sure what I expected, but it sure wasn't a crowd filled with as many country-clubbers as headbangers. Who knew so many people with gray on their head liked hard rock? I even saw a couple of dudes in O.R. scrubs, as if they'd just gotten off shift at a downtown hospital. And I had to laugh when the cameras caught a grinning guy who looked like my dad shouting along with singer Brian Johnson, "She's got the Jack. She's got the Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack!"

These same folks even seemed remarkably excited when the band sprinkled five songs off its new CD, Black Ice, into the 18-song set. Usually when a band trots out its new songs, the punters head for the beer line, but these fans were right there, singing along to "Rock 'n' Roll Train," "Big Jack," and "War Machine." To me, the CD is lackluster, but most of the new ones actually sounded pretty cool when performed live.

I guess, given that Back in Black has sold so many copies, it shouldn't surprise me that the band has such crossover appeal. But it did. There were very few people under 21 years old at this show. Then again, every ticket in the place cost $100. It definitely could be AC/DC's cash-out tour. If it is, I'm glad I finally saw them, because they delivered.

Any semi-knowledgeable fan could've predicted AC/DC's nearly two-hour-long set list with 90 percent accuracy, but no matter: Hits are hits, and AC/DC played them all -- at eardrum-shattering volume. Singer Brian Johnson could've been the weak link, after 28 years of throat-shredding vocals, but the 61-year-old looked and sounded powerful, stalking the expansive stage in his trademark flat cap, sleeveless button-down shirt, and fitted jeans. Johnson made full use of the catwalk that extended into the middle of the basketball arena, often shaking hands and high-fiving fans lucky enough to be down on the floor.

Secret weapon Malcolm Young is starting to look like Gollum (as my concert-going companion Eric put it) but, wielding the same Gretsch guitar he's appeared onstage with for three decades, is still the quintessential rock 'n' roll rhythm guitarist. Underrated rhythm section Cliff Williams (bass) and Phil Rudd (drums) have always been the anti-Entwistle/Moon, but AC/DC wouldn't sound like AC/DC without their no-frills foundation. Williams has shocking white hair that covered his face for much of the set. The AC/DC formula demands that Rudd (now with short hair, wearing sensible-looking glasses, and often smoking during the set) not be allowed to call attention to himself with tricky beats and flashy fills. For his consistent service to that workmanlike formula, Rudd deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award.

In the end, the show belonged to Angus Young. He remained remarkably faithful to the solos you hear on all the classic AC/DC studio albums. Whether he's on his knees or on his back or running from end to end on the huge stage, Young's energy and virtuosity almost makes you forget that the guy's too old to be doing a striptease to "The Jack" or wearing devil horns on "Highway to Hell." The guy is 53 years old and his artistry clearly lies in his utter refusal to evolve. Yet unlike most rock 'n' roll reptiles, he's continued to thrive, despite his ignoring the pull of evolution. 

Though the band was pretty much spot-on for the whole set, they really sounded fired-up on "Dirty Deeds," "Shoot to Thrill," "Whole Lotta Rosie," and closer "Let There Be Rock." That revved-up Bon Scott-era classic featured an extended solo by Angus Young, who stood on the highest part of the stage, in front of the giant video screen. There he blasted out his trademark dirty-blues licks and mugged for the audience, goading them into more applause.

Something hit me during the first song of the encore, "Highway to Hell": I had to admit to myself that I'd entered the show thinking I was going on a nostalgia trip. But I got something that was pretty much the opposite. It was unlike going to an old-timers' baseball game or even seeing The Who, Kiss, Cheap Trick, and Joan Jett in recent years. While entertaining to various degress, those shows were nostalgia acts. AC/DC suddenly seemed much more timeless -- the one and only breed of a rock 'n' roll animal that will never evolve. I think a lot of us are comforted by that thought. -- Jay Bennett

The setlist:

1. "Rock 'n' Roll Train" (new)
2. "Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be"
3. "Back in Black"
4. "Big Jack" (new)
5. "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap"
6. "Thunderstruck"
7. "Black Ice" (new)
8. "The Jack"
9. "Hells Bells"
10. "Shoot to Thrill"
11. "War Machine" (new)
12. "Anything Goes" (new)
13. "You Shook Me All Night Long"
14. "T.N.T."
15. "Whole Lotta Rosie"
16. "Let There Be Rock"
17 "Highway to Hell"
18 "For Those About to Rock"

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Jay Bennett
Contact: Jay Bennett