Live: AC/DC at MSG


It’s totally awesome to have Tom Breihan around here…

Madison Square Garden
November 13, 2008
Photos by David Atlas

In the wake of the absurdly huge first-week sales of Wal-Mart-only comeback album Black Ice, The Guardian‘s Alex Petridis theorized that AC/DC album sales are a great economic indicator. Basically, whenever AC/DC’s doing well, the British economy (and probably the American one, too) is in the shitter. That actually makes sense. I couldn’t tell you how most of last night’s MSG masses justified the admission price ($96 plus assorted ridiculous service charges). But I can tell you that if you, say, I don’t know, hypothetically just lost your cushy little website job a couple of days ago, there aren’t too many things you want to see more than a sweat-drenched balding 53-year-old duck-walking across a stage while executing a note-perfect one-handed (left-handed!) guitar solo. Because if Angus Young is still plying his guitar-hero-as-circus-geek trade, something at least is going right.

The crowd at the Garden last night: mostly dudes, about 75% drunk motherfuckers and 25% parents with kids. Pretty much exactly the same ratio as I remember seeing in the upper deck at Baltimore Ravens games, except with more blinky plastic devil-horns. Blinky plastic devil-horns, it turns out, are the AC/DC equivalent of white slatted Kanye glasses. I’m assuming they have something to do with the devil-horns that Angus Young wore on the cover of Highway to Hell, but I don’t think those ones were blinky. In any case, once opening yowly Irish buttrockers the Answer (kind of like AC/DC but really more like Jackyl) got done and the lights went down, all those blinky plastic horns really did look pretty cool.

At this point, absolutely nothing AC/DC does onstage is ever going to surprise anyone. This is, after all, a band that’s made a 35-year career out of pursuing some Platonic ideal of rockness, essentially making the same album over and over, hiring a singer who sounded exactly like the first one when the first one died. If you spent any serious middle-school time with their 1992 Live and its accompanying videos, or any of the legion live albums and videos they’ve released, you know Angus Young’s going to stick his guitar-neck between Brian Johnson’s legs like it’s a dick. You know he’s going to do a cartoonish striptease while simultaneously soloing during “The Jack.” You know the rest of the band is going to leave the stage at the end of “Let There Be Rock,” and you know Angus Young’s going to finish things up with an endlessly, flailingly theatrical solo: running laps around the stage, falling to his knees, wriggling around the floor. You might not know he’ll run to the middle of the arena and jump up on a riser that’ll take him 30 feet above your head, but it won’t exactly shock you either. But even if you know everything that’s about to happen, the pure visceral delight you get from actually being there and seeing it is something else entirely.

“We’re going to mix it up a bit,” says Brian Johnson early on, in one of the rare instances when he talked between songs. And, bless his heart, he was lying. Because even with a ridiculous smash of a new album, these guys know that we came to hear the hits. And so after they get a couple of (pretty good!) new songs out of the way, it’s nothing but classics: “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “Shoot to Thrill,” “TNT.” There are a few nice Spinal Tap touches: the gigantic inflatable fat chick on “Whole Lotta Rosie,” the cannons on “For Those About to Rock,” the huge bell that Johnson dangles from during the intro to “Hell’s Bells.” But this isn’t exactly a band that has to work to keep an audience on its side. None of this “I can’t hear you” bullshit. The songs, primal engines of knuckle-dragging hilarity, do all the work.

Drummer Phil Rudd famously never plays fills, which makes him basically the best drummer ever; every song has a super-simplistic boom-boom-boom backbone, one that Cliff Williams and Malcolm Young support mostly by staying in the background and riffing away. All three of them look like dudes doing a job, not particularly enjoying or hating it. Johnson looks like Popeye. And as much as Angus hams it up, I was surprised at how rarely I found myself looking at him. An AC/DC show is more of a communal thing than you might expect, and the focus is less on the dudes onstage actually playing the songs than on the crowd yelling along and getting smashed. And maybe that’s why AC/DC always do so well in recessions: When you don’t have to go to work the next morning, you don’t have to feel too bad about getting smashed and yelling yourself hoarse.