Photo: Chad Fahnestock
AC/DC and The Answer Pepsi Center November 25
The crowd at the Pepsi Center last night for AC/DC's first Denver concert in seven years resembled the ones that gather for Oakland Raiders games. It looked like everyone incarcerated at the state's prisons had been given a one-day furlough for the occasion. Even middle-aged people with straight jobs managed to get in touch with their inner werewolf, so much so that I had no doubt in my mind that everyone in the arena could have kicked my ass. Men. Women. Even children; there was a ten-year-old with a mohawk who looked especially fierce. But the collected throng had come in peace -- or if not that, at least their energies were focused on something other than going after yours truly with a meat hammer. They were there to rock in the simplest, least complicated, most primal way imaginable. Lucky thing AC/DC had the same goal, and accomplished it with a vengeance that belied the decades that have gone by since they first started doing so.
The Answer, an Irish four-piece that earned the opening-act gig, may not have been a known quantity to the AC/DC faithful, but the band provided everything the assembled masses could have wanted and more. During songs like "On and On" and "Under the Sky," lead singer Cormac Neeson gave good shriek, his face draped with long tresses like Robert Plant in his prime, while guitarist Paul Mahon unleashed a riff barrage that was as unoriginal as it was satisfying. Everything about the group is secondhand, from its onstage antics -- Neeson had the bantam-rooster strut down cold -- to its incorporation of a mini-drum solo courtesy of kit-slammer James Heatley. But they played with the conviction of true believers, ripping into their tunes as if the elements that made them up had been newly mined rather than recycled repeatedly over four decades or so. When they were done, a portion of the audience was so grateful that they hadn't been forced to sit through a set by trendy ponces trying to sound modern and contemporary that they gave the lads a standing ovation. Even Neeson seemed surprised.
Photo: Chad Fahnestock
Still, this was mere prelude to the main event, which arrived with a befitting lack of subtlety. As the lights dimmed, an appropriately randy cartoon introduction splashed across a screen over the stage. In it, a "Rock N' Roll Train" -- AC/DC's new single: get it? -- rocketed down the tracks as two short-skirted hotties prowled the cars. After passing Brian Johnson in mid-hummer, they arrived at the engine room, where a leering Angus Young madly stoked the engine -- and as the babes licked their lips and flaunted their thinly covered mounds of Venus erotically enough to stiffen Angus' satanic tail, an enormous locomotive crashed through the backdrop onto the stage in a shower of sparks.
That's one way to start a show.
Yes, "Rock N' Roll Train," from the band's Black Ice platter (available for purchase at your neighborhood WalMart), was first out of the gate, shearing through the arena on the power of Angus' showboating guitar pyrotechnics, ably supported by his brother Malcolm's rhythm axing and the brawny beating and thumping offered by bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd. All too many veteran bands allow the tempo of their material to flag in a live setting; it's a sure sign that their motivation for getting back on the road is more about money than music. But Rudd, a cigarette frequently dangling from the corner of his mouth, and Williams, trying to be invisible, kept up a frantic pace throughout. They were just doing their jobs, and doing them damned well.
As for Johnson, he initially seemed like the weak link. His throat-tearing squawk was as distinctive as ever, but despite his joviality, he moved stiffly, as if each thrust of his arm would require an extra few minutes in an ice bath after the show. He's always resembled a live-action Fred Flintstone, what with his generous midsection and preference for sleeveless shirts, but during "Train," he moved like him, too -- more Hanna-Barbera circa the '60s than new millennium Pixar. Thank goodness, then, that as the concert continued, he limbered up considerably. Guess those old joints needed to be stretched before they'd work the way they should.
The show was frontloaded with Black Ice material, which turned out to be a wise strategy, since the attendees were so ridiculously hyped up that they didn't care if the tunes were ultra-familiar or not. Moreover, Angus and company understood that hyping the latest product is more effective when it can be sampled side by side with old reliables like "Back in Black" (the third song) and "The Jack," which featured on-screen shots of women in the arena bellowing along with lyrics about sexually transmitted diseases -- a hilarious juxtaposition of which the camera subjects were blissfully unaware.
Other stagecraft was equally enjoyable. As is the case with their music, the men of AC/DC never forget a good idea, which explains why some of their most successful bits from past tours were in place for this one. A giant bell for "Hell's Bells" -- and Johnson managed to swing from a rope that served as a de facto ringer without requiring medical treatment. A huge, inflatable floozie for "Whole Lotta Rosie" -- this time, appropriately enough, she straddled the train. And the inevitable cannons during "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)."
Photo: Chad Fahnestock
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But the best special effect by far was Angus, who reenacted virtually all of his classic bits, with the exception of actually baring his butt. (Instead, he flashed underwear with the AC/DC logo emblazoned on each cheek -- a good idea under the circumstances.) He duck-walked and ran around the stage in his trademark naughty schoolboy garb, looking far less scary than the handful of dudes in the audience modeling the same look, before stripping down to black shorts and amping up the mayhem with cross-stage sprints, plus floor spins on the main stage and a rising, mid-arena platform. Glistening with sweat, the stringy hair growing from the sides of his head matted over his growing bald spot, he looked strangely like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, albeit one who didn't need a Ring of Power to rule. During his extended solo for "Let There Be Rock," he emerged again as proto-metal's greatest imp -- a wonderfully strange little freak that time has aged but not changed. Not where it matters.
There was only one dead spot in the entire display -- a lackluster performance of "Anything Goes," one of the lesser Black Ice numbers, which was placed too deep in the set. But that didn't matter to the guy on my left, who was -- no exaggeration -- the drunkest person I've been seated by at a concert, ever. Like Elliott Gould playing Trapper John, he had a full-on '70s M*A*S*H-stache and kinky, fright-wig type hair that he whipped up and down, back and forth, in between stomping on my feet, nearly putting my eye out by throwing devil horns, screaming "WHOOOOO!" at every opportunity, and climbing between my row, where he was accompanied by a very patient buddy, and another one a couple of rows back, which was occupied by his exasperated wife.
And yet somehow, the actions of this loony boozer made the experience better, not worse. That's the power of AC/DC. All these years down the line, the band is still able to drive grown men and women (and their offspring) out of their minds. Liquor optional. -- Michael Roberts