Xcel Center, January 19
By Peter S. Scholtes
My tire blew out on the highway to hell -- namely I-94 to St. Paul from Madison, Wisconsin -- so I missed the Answer, the opening band for AC/DC, except as background noise for the men's room, "where the dicks hang out," as one guy put it, and where a spontaneous running joke among apparent strangers talking on their cell phones added this to the din: "Yeah, the Black Crowes are just about done," "Yeah, Tesla's still playing." Over in the women's room, women smoked, or so I'm told. So this was the AC/DC crowd, all right, albeit here for the band's second run through town on the same tour, with an identical setlist to last November, and with every reason to believe the band would be on the fatigued side of doing it to death.
Yet if AC/DC were tired, I missed that too. They had the challenge of rocking a rising median age--I caught yawns on the floor as early as four songs in. Given demographic reality, the floor had been given over entirely to reserved seating. So no mosh pit (what's that?), and also less of the swagger that AC/DC requires, and not just from the bare-midriff set. Despite a strong opening, including an animated cartoon starring the band in R-rated situations on a train, and a giant prop locomotive spouting explosions (wait, we can have pyrotechnics at shows again?), the band failed to achieve liftoff during "Rock N Roll Train," "Back in Black," "Big Jack," and "Thunderstruck", though they built a nice engine-sized hum. Iconic guitarist Angus Young's Chuck Berry duck-walked, and his brother, rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, hair-shook. Drummer Phil Rudd chain-smoked, and singer Brian Johnson throat-shredded. Bassist Cliff Williams withheld his riffs for those crucial lines where the bass needs to kick in late. Where ear plugs failed, I visited guest services to have my head encased in cement. But I just wasn't feeling it in my chest.
This was the sound of AC/DC's '08 comeback album Black Ice, a blues-based rock more groovy than heavy, with a songful emphasis on vocals that still had the young fan behind me air-guitaring on his AC/DC poster. But then, at some point, the guitars came up a notch, and the whole sound nosed upward. Maybe I'm projecting gratitude that Angus Young surprised us rather than show his pale Scottish-Aussie bum once again during "The Jack," but it seemed like the sold-out crowd started giving back. "That's rock 'n' roll right there, I can see it," said Johnson during "Shoot to Thrill," pointing at a sea of hands clapping in the blue spotlights. "I love this shit, man."
I had to admit, there is no more decadent or stupid way of celebrating Martin Luther King Day in 2009 than watching AC/DC perform "War Machine," with a cartoon behind them showing a bomber dropping guitars. But that's the moment my own pleasure centers sprang open: AC/DC's silliness is purposeful and sublime, like every little melody in "You Shook Me All Night Long," or the blunt beat of "TNT" (more real fire!), and the baby-got-back of "Whole Lotta Rosie," which in concert involved a giant blow-up highlight-blonde with a tit tattoo straddling the locomotive, tapping her foot to the beat. I realized that Cliff Williams's approach to bass is AC/DC's approach to a rock concert: Withhold, then kick in. Because, as people who couldn't get their tickets the first time around know, pleasure delayed is pleasure enhanced. Which is why this was my first AC/DC concert.
--Peter S. Scholtes