Review: After seven-year absence, AC/DC proves the eternal joy of a riff and a screech
Brian Johnson stood onstage at the Power Trip festival on Saturday night, two days after his 76th birthday, with the rest of AC/DC behind him for the first time in more than seven years.
In early 2016, the hard-rock band’s longtime frontman was forced off the road when doctors told him his hearing was at immediate risk; Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses stepped in to complete the group’s Rock or Bust tour. Thanks to technology he discovered on YouTube, Johnson regained enough hearing to make 2020’s “Power Up” album, which AC/DC framed as a tribute to founding guitarist Malcolm Young, who’d died in 2017. Then COVID scotched the band’s live plans.
“How cool is this?” Johnson asked as he looked out at a crowd filled with thousands of blinking light-up devil horns. Dressed as always in black jeans and a black T-shirt, tufts of hair poking out from beneath his signature flat cap, he allowed himself a few seconds to take in the sight — one he might’ve thought he wouldn’t see again — before cuing his bandmates to crank up “Back in Black.” The riff, of course, went off like a bomb.
Guns N’ Roses headlined the first night of this weekend’s Power Trip hard rock festival with a show that lacked spectacle and mayhem.
Was this gig at Power Trip — a three-day rock fest at the Empire Polo Club that also features Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Tool — a preamble to further road work from the reactivated AC/DC? The band hasn’t said one way or the other. (In addition to Johnson, the lineup here included lead guitarist Angus Young, Young’s nephew Stevie Young on rhythm guitar, bassist Cliff Williams and the veteran session and touring drummer Matt Laug in place of Phil Rudd, who’s faced a host of legal troubles in recent years.)
Yet it’s hard to see why these guys would opt not to keep playing. For one thing, those illuminated horns go for $20 a pop, to say nothing of the AC/DC T-shirts I’ve seen on what seems like every third person in the desert this weekend — not just at Power Trip but at the grocery store and the gas station and especially among the military-history enthusiasts at the Palm Springs Air Museum. On Saturday evening, the line snaking out of the festival merch tent was so long that you had to wonder if somebody was gonna miss AC/DC’s performance while waiting to buy an AC/DC hoodie.
More important, though, the band is simply still too good to hang it up; surely, the members — all in their 60s and 70s save for Laug, who’s 55 — recognize that that would constitute some kind of betrayal.
The group’s set, which lasted a little over two hours, stacked classic after classic (after classic): “Thunderstruck,” “Hells Bells,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “Shoot to Thrill,” each delivered at deafening volume and with precisely the right blend of rawness and finesse. The Youngs sounded like they were using Brillo pads for guitar picks; Williams and Laug kept the grooves so square that somehow they were funky. Johnson’s voice, meanwhile, was a ruined screech, his words all but unintelligible — just the way you wanted it, not least when he voiced some horrifying idea about women’s bodies.
For visuals, the band had a giant wall of Marshall amplifiers and it had Angus Young, who duck-walked in his schoolboy uniform until he evidently got too hot for a jacket and tie; the guitarist spent the latter half of the show with his shirt open like the world’s swinging-est granddad at work on his old pickup. (Second-best look of the night came from Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, who opened his band’s set earlier Saturday in a silver jacket that evoked one of those crinkly trauma blankets.)
Naturally, AC/DC saved some of its biggest hits for near the end of the concert, and every time the band revved one of those indelible riffs — as in “You Shook Me All Night Long,” for instance, or “Highway to Hell” — you couldn’t believe you’d already heard so many all-timers without hearing this one. The show displayed absolutely no development of the group’s music because development is not what this group is about.
The whole point of AC/DC, which formed in 1973, is that the members stripped away everything unnecessary from rock music and found enough left to explore for half a century.
Half a century and then some, they made you hope on Saturday.
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