AC/DC | 09.02 | San Jose

Words by: Dennis Cook

AC/DC :: 09.02.09 :: HP Pavilion :: San Jose, CA

AC/DC is a genuinely bad influence. This thought occurred to me whilst violently pumping my fist in brute syncopation with most of the mob as we punctuated Brian Johnson's list of homicide techniques (concrete shoes, neckties, cyanide, high voltage) with shouts of "Done dirt cheap!" This is not the band mama would have wished for us. AC/DC actively beckons us into temptation, elevating lust, wildness and abandon to Herculean heights. They are one of the few bands today that retains the misbehaved, lusty character of rock's progenitors, nearly as unruly and scary as young Ike Turner and Elvis Presley groping and fondling the music with unwholesome interest. Yet, this is 2009 not 1953 and what AC/DC's San Jose performance revealed was this foundational kind of rock 'n' roll is also capable of grand scale refinement that'll still pop your cork real good.

After 36 years, there are no accidents in the world of AC/DC. They are a well-oiled enterprise that puts on massive, thoroughly thought out mega-productions designed to get stadium audiences off. Powered by a catalog full of pleasure button singles, a tireless dedication to bare bones, blues-based hard rock and a dogged determination to please their fans, AC/DC and their crew get the job done and have done so for decades. Each tour is meticulously choreographed from the song selection to the lighting to the jaw-dropping set pieces, right down to the merch, which this round included flashing red devil horns with the group's logo, an inspired move that created a creepy-cool amber glimmer when the house lights fell. In this hyper-organized way, AC/DC is very un-rock, nigh corporate even, but as executed, in the moment, it's enormously successful at reaching one at a very primal level. Often only one's lizard brain is operating during their shows, and it's chattering all sorts of naughty things, too.

It's easy to mistake what they do as "simple" or "dumb" (and plenty of critics do, vocally), but it's nothing of the sort. Even this lifelong fan has sometimes dismissed recent offerings as lesser fare only to later discover the thought put into them with greater inspection. To wit, my too glib review of their latest album, Black Ice (2008), which I've since come to realize is one of their best in years, perhaps their single finest collection since 1983's Flick of the Switch. That Black Ice forms the spine of the 2008-2009 setlist (which remains largely unchanged except for major festival appearances) actually proved a positive, showing connective tissue between what they're creating today and the various chapters in their long history.

AC/DC by Bitey
Never one to schedule an opening act that might upstage them, AC/DC gave the first hour to fairly talented classic rock throwbacks The Answer. "We're from Belfast, Ireland and our business with you tonight is rock 'n' roll." A massive Led Zeppelin/Free fixation and a no-frills, '70s street clothes fashion sense were the most noticeable elements in their basic but not unpleasant thud & strum, which seemed vaguely exciting at first but became an indistinguishable blur by set's end. There's no doubting their sincerity or eagerness to rock but I'm at a loss to pick out a single truly striking individual quality that sets them apart from the pack.

Buddy Guy's "Five Long Years" played during the intermission before the headliners, tipping us off to the blues overtones to come. Besides being the standard bearers for three-chord, barking yob rock since the early '70s, Australia's AC/DC has also been a crucial popularizer of American blues music since their inception. As they've paved the road to Hades around the globe they've also helped spread the gospel of Guy, the various Kings and the heathen Chuck Berry. Part of their appeal is how they still seem on a mission to tell everyone about this crazy music that put the zap on their heads and shaped the entirety of their lives. And as zealots they are VERY convincing.

Angus Young - AC/DC by Adrian Buss
The start of any AC/DC concert is a spectacle, followed by multiple waves of shock and awe, culminating in beautifully gross displays that jackboot subtlety in rains of glitter and dizzying strobe blasts. This tour's kickoff consists of a sharply drawn animated short which plays like Ralph Bakshi's interpretation of "Casey Jones," with a demon Angus Young shoveling on coal until a pair of Heavy Metal slutty gals try to put the brakes on their "Rock 'n' Roll Train," the opening cut of the set and Black Ice. With a crash-boom-bam, the evil wenches are thrown from the train but not in time to prevent a nearly full sized locomotive from jumping onto the stage. AC/DC does big well, and the train looming above drummer Phil Rudd, bassist Cliff Williams and rhythm guitarist/songwriter Malcolm Young fit in well with the two-story faux bronze statue of Angus, full size wrecking ball and other mighty oddities from previous tours. However, besides that central prop the huge stage was largely bare, a playground for Angus and Brian Johnson mostly while the other three huddled around the drum riser and simply put their shoulders into it for more than two hours.

Once unleashed they only picked up steam, lacing new tunes with a fine selection from their 15 studio albums. No, you won't hear everything you'd like to, but some classics like "It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Want To Rock 'n' Roll)" would be a touch disingenuous coming from a band selling out stadiums worldwide. They are really playing up the Devil stuff on this tour, so following "Train" with "Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be" worked, and it was zero surprise (though no less enjoyable) when "Hells Bells" and "Highway To Hell" arrived later. I've always felt the satanic stuff was primarily a way to get a rise out of sensitive types and churchies, who stereotypically preached through bullhorns out front before the show. It would be laughable if it weren't so sad, and AC/DC seems fully cognizant of how their hellish flirtations affect people.

It's true that they're getting older, but Johnson is singing as well as ever, perhaps bolstered by his recent stints in London musical theatre, and though Angus is looking more and more like a deranged, balding Steven Wright, you're made of different stuff than most of us inside the HP Pavilion if you didn't lose your mind a little during his many six-string excursions, including his raised platform free-for-all solo spotlight during "Let There Be Rock." At one point, Johnson observed, "I say the boy has the Devil in his fingers and the blues in his soul." Well put, sir.

AC/DC by Matt Becker
What proved a real surprise was how strong the new cuts were live, even when sandwiched between guaranteed killers like "Back In Black" and "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap." The band could just cough up the hits but the new material seems to mean something to them, and the conviction behind the performances of "War Machine," "Big Jack," "Black Ice" and even the pop-esque "Anything Goes" was very winning. It didn't hurt their cause that they dug into deeper album tracks like "Dog Eat Dog" off Let There Be Rock (whose title cut provided a "gospel according to AC/DC" super self-indulgent yet ridiculously satisfying close to the main set) and "Shot Down In Flames" off Highway To Hell. It was hard to fault their selections as one rode their wave, enjoying the girlies jiggling what mama gave them on the Jumbotron to "The Jack" or "You Shook Me All Night Long." And the grotesque inflatable, torn fishnet clad balloon woman that rode their train during "Whole Lotta Rosie" seemed like just the thing at just the right moment – a feeling that pretty much permeated this entire night. Screaming "Oi!" at maximum volume during "TNT" or raising a salute during the finale of "For Those About To Rock," one felt part of a beer stoked, none-too-pretty tribe, which would probably run amuck if the band so ordered.

As it was, everything stayed pretty tame, a splendid bit of hooligan foreplay with no disastrous consequences. This was my tenth time seeing them live, and it remains an intrinsic joy to have them shove their forked tongue in my ear. Playing at "bad" is the most the majority of us will ever do, despite the passing urge we may feel to put out a contract on our boss or ex-lover. AC/DC helps us process these dark but utterly human feelings and thoughts. In staying on the road, in staying true to their core principles, in treating traditionally non-serious things with seriousness and care, AC/DC has endured, thrived and continued to aid multiple generations in connecting with the original rebellious meaning of rockin' and rollin'.

Walking back to my car I caught sight of the small army of idling semis and black clad roadies waiting to take the show to the next town. Society will always need rabble-rousers of this sort to keep us in touch with all the dirty, dirty things men think and feel, the devil you know and all that. And it may be that Satan gets the lion's share of the credit but AC/DC is really doing God's work.

AC/DC :: 09.02.09 :: HP Pavilion :: San Jose, CA

Rock 'n' Roll Train, Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be, Back In Black, Big Jack, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Shot Down in Flames, Thunderstruck, Black Ice, The Jack, Hells Bells, Shoot to Thrill, War Machine, Dog Eat Dog, Anything Goes, You Shook Me All Night Long, TNT, Whole Lotta Rosie, Let There Be Rock
Encore: Highway To Hell, For Those About To Rock

AC/DC return to the States on October 1 in Phoenix, AZ; complete tour dates available here.

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[Published on: 9/10/09]

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