AC/DC at Wells Fargo Arena
Des Moines, Iowa, April 17, 2010
The question is: Do they still have it at this age?
The answer—without hesitation—is: Yes, they do.
This was my first-ever AC/DC show. I won’t bore you with all of the personal drama that it took to get to Saturday night’s show, but let’s just say that after Brian Johnson went all old on me last fall and caused the band to cancel a bunch of Midwestern dates, I’d almost reached a point where I had psyched myself out of all the excitement of finally seeing them.
A half-year later, that excitement returned the moment the lady behind the box office window handed me my pair of tickets and a voice in my head reminded me: “In three-and-a-half hours, you will see AC/DC live.”
I began to walk back to my car where my wife was tending to our children. There was a sense of purpose to my step; I wanted to get those kids to the grandparents and get back to the arena.
As I walked, two guys came towards me, one wearing a black AC/DC t-shirt.
“Is the box office open?” one of them asked.
“For those about to rock, it’s open!” I yelled back, giving the t-shirt guy a high-five as he passed.
I saw my wife shaking her head at me as I continued to the driver’s seat.
“Daddy, did you know those guys?” my son asked as I started the car.
It’s reassuring to know that after almost four decades of playing the same three chords over and over again, that a band like AC/DC can still be a hot commodity and sell out venues the size of Des Moines’ Wells Fargo Arena (15,000 seats). The band has moved only an inch stylistically during that time and if it isn’t every man’s secret dream to pull the plug on their id at age fourteen, it should be.
“Thanks for hangin’ with us,” acknowledged Johnson after the band finally pulled in with “Rock & Roll Train.” He didn’t exactly explain what it was that took him off the road last year, but then again, no one in the crowd seemed to mind.
“Train” was one of four Black Ice songs the band performed during their two-hour plus set, and like any good AC/DC song, they all sounded like they could fit into any of the Brian Johnson-era albums since Back In Black.
Personally, I think Black Ice may be the band’s best album since B.I.B., particularly if someone would have made them whittle it down to under 40 minutes. With that said, the Black Ice material still ended up being the songs where everyone did their beer runs and bathroom breaks.
No offense, Angus, they do the same thing at Stones shows.
Regardless of what album they were pulling from album, the band was well oiled and enthusiastic; an impressive thing considering the band has been playing the same set for the entire Black Ice tour.
That’s the only complaint that I could come up with: the lack of variety. For almost two years now, the band has been churning out the same songs with no deviation. They did replace “Dog Eat Dog” with “Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be” last year, but make no mistake, this is not a band you need to follow from city to city. One would think that a band like AC/DC could give the dog a bone every now and then without too much bother, but they’ve stuck to the set like a blue-collar job, offering perfectly choreographed execution over real danger.
Brian Johnson has offered a half-assed explanation as to why there’s no deviation—coming across as a douche in the process, I might add—but to suggest that the road crew isn’t up to the task of improvising on occasion is disingenuous and it belittles the band’s rough pub origins.
But hey, I’d never seen any of the songs live before Saturday night, so don’t expect me to bitch too much if they stick to the script and play “Thunderstruck” over “Rock & Roll Damnation.” As long as they can convince me that their thousandth version of “You Shook Me All Night Long” is as passionate as the first time they played it, then knock me out with those American thighs.
The passion in AC/DC comes straight out of their rhythm section, a unit so in synch with each other that they’re easy to overlook and easier to take for granted. You’ll never hear the names Phil Rudd, Cliff Williams, and Malcolm Young in too many worship mags, but without them, we probably wouldn’t be looking at AC/DC’s multi-decade career either. They are the unsung heroes on record and on stage, the workers on the assembly line that keep the numbers rolling, allowing the two frontmen to sell the product.
Drummer Phil Rudd has replaced his glasses with contacts and is now sporting some nice-sized muttonchops. Those are the only things new with Phil. His drumming is so simplistic that it’s awesome, opting to smoke cigarettes and keep time than waste his energy with drums. He probably hit his toms once or twice during the entire set, which probably makes his drum tech happy as he doesn’t have to replace the heads every night.
Next to him was a silver-haired bassist Cliff Williams who would march up to the mic in unison with brother Young whenever their backing vocal services were needed. And after each “All night long!” “Thunder!” or “Oi! Oi! Oi!,” they would turn around and march back to their spot to the left/right of Rudd’s drum kit.
That left the entire stage—and a huge extended catwalk that divided half the floor—up to the antics of Johnson and brother Angus.
Aside from strutting down the stage divider and walking to stage left and right for equal time, Johnson would throw out a fist pump or make the universal symbol for “Come on!” with his hands, conveniently tucking the microphone in the front of his blue jeans for safe keeping.
And yes, the hat stayed on for the entire night.
Angus, on the other hand—who’s also experiencing some follicle challenges—wasn’t afraid to drop hat and trou during the obligatory strip tease during “The Jack.” The guy is a sweating ball of energy, continually in motion and giving everything to get in your good graces.
Two hours into the show, Angus was still spazzing around in circles on the floor of an extending platform, soloing for over ten-minutes during the closer “Let There Be Rock.”
The brief break yielded two encores, “Highway To Hell” and the eardrum damaging cannons of “For Those About To Rock.” I actually felt sorry for those who came to the show without ear protection and gave the “Father of the Year” award to the man who brought his 9 year old son to the show with a huge pair of airport quality headphones.
In between all of the Chuck Berry plagiarism, cattle-prod vocals, and juvenile lyrics came the usual suspects: the blow-up Rosie, the fire cannons, the huge (hells) bell, and the video screen rundown of the band’s entire catalog covers which, aside from the two eras of the different lead singers, may be the only thing that people can use to actually tell what decade the band is pulling from.
Yes, we like our AC/DC the same way we like our Ramones and our Motorheads: eternally fixed on such a narrow scope that you begin to forget they’re human and subject to a shelf life. You could see the band’s mortality on stage that night in Des Moines, but I’ll be damned if you could hear it.
Inevitably they’ll reach a point where they have to hang it up—hell, even Chuck Berry is currently operating under surreal circumstances where you just want to pay a ticket to put him in assisted living-but AC/DC hasn’t reached that point.
Judging from the crowd’s reaction (and in gauging my own excitement before, during, and after the show) we’re not ready for them to hit the nursing home just yet.
Because even while they may have eliminated the danger from their show by following the same set over and over again, the songs within that set remind us that the band’s existence is based on an inability to progress beyond the formula that they developed when Angus’ school uniform was a real part of his wardrobe ensemble, not just a stage prop.
Seeing them live tells us that as repetitive as their script may be is, no one has managed to come up with one as good as they have.
And seeing them live also reminds us that no one has been able to deliver that repetitiveness as good as they can either.
Rock & Roll Train
Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be
Back In Black
Shot Down In Flames
Shoot To Thrill
You Shook Me All Night Long
Whole Lotta Rosie
Let There Be Rock
Highway To Hell
For Those About To Rock