AC/DC. Pepsi Center. 02.08.16

ACDC1AC/DC. Pepsi Center. 02.08.16

Attending a concert in a giant corporate arena is a necessary evil when it comes to seeing high-profile bands with a large stage presence, but when done right, those arena-ready bands can make you forget the hell you’re living in. AC/DC flipped that script right on its head last night when they brought their Rock or Bust World Tour to the Pepsi Center. For the Australian rockers, Hell isn’t a place to be avoided, it is to be celebrated. So when the lights went down on the capacity crowd, thousands of red devil-horns lit the seats as Denver welcomed the iconic band back to the Northern Hemisphere. A space odyssey scene played out on the giant screen before everything was blown to bits when Brian Johnson and Angus Young took the stage to rattle brains with the title track off their latest album. By packing a stadium-sized show into a modestly-sized arena, the band achieved maximum visual and sonic impact, proving that Hell really ain’t a bad place to be.


One of my first large-scale rock shows was AC/DC’s Ballbreaker Tour at San Diego Sports Arena. Some friends and I had 2nd row tickets for my 19th birthday. That was on February 12th, 1996. Twenty years later (almost to the day), I found myself doing the same thing in a different city with different friends. Having attended hundreds of shows since that night in San Diego, I didn’t think there was any way an aging AC/DC could impress the way they did back then. I was wrong. The absence of Malcolm Young (due to serious health issues) is something that has to be mentioned, just out of pure respect, but his nephew, the 57-year-old Stevie Young, provided more than enough coverage to keep the band tight. And while Chris Slade kept his personality in the background all night, he is no stranger to touring with the band, so the troubled Phil Rudd was hardly missed on drums. In all reality, any capable musicians would have done fine though, because all eyes were on Angus Young and Brian Johnson the entire night. Those guys must have truly made a deal with the devil, because their style, attitude, energy, and even their attire, hasn’t aged a day in the two decades since I last saw them.

ACDC3I hear you guys won some kind of football game last night.” If I’m not mistaken, those were the only words spoken to the crowd. Referencing the Broncos Super Bowl win, Johnson led us into “Shoot to Thrill”, one of many tracks that would be performed from 1980’s Back in Black. The title track from that album came shortly after, sending the crowd into the first of many sing-along, fist-shaking frenzies. And the hits kept coming. If one negative thing can be said about AC/DC, it’s that all their songs sound the same, but if a formula works, why fuck with it, right? That being said, I doubt the band would be very successful in following the latest trend of touring an album in its entirety. They have songs that people want/need to hear. That’s the reason their setlists haven’t changed all that much since I saw them in ’96. “Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder” and “Rock N’ Roll Train” were the choice new cuts that were peppered into the mix, but trying to find a good time to take a piss or grab a beer was next to impossible. The minute you left your row, you were committing yourself to missing something crucial.  “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”, “Thunderstuck”, “Hells Bells”, “You Shook Me All Night Long”…those universal rockers know no boundaries as cross-generational anthems.


Brian Johnson always looks just a little pained when belting out scratched-up screams from under his signature newsboy cap, but if the altitude added any weight to things, the 68-year-old kept it under wraps. The guy seemed in complete control the entire set. And if Angus is feeling the years since he turned 60, he hasn’t let them affect the way he shreds a guitar while duck-walking down the runaway. Sporting a blue velvet schoolboy uniform, with hat, tie, and shorts of course, he kicked it back-and-forth (toe to heel) across the stage and out into the middle of the arena, all while burning the strings with his lightning fast fingers. He truly is a remarkable individual. Brian’s vocals are the voice of AC/DC, but Angus is the heart and soul. Like I said before, the rest of the band stayed in the background most of the set, but Cliff Williams and Stevie Young came forward to back Johnson up on “Dirty Deeds”, right before taking me back to high school with “Thunderstruck”. I’m not sure how many JV football teams adopted that song as their rallying cry, but I know the Placer Hillmen sure did. Overall, the sound was decent throughout the entire set. The Pepsi Center (or any arena in general) is never the best when it comes to acoustics, but besides Johnson’s vocals being buried a bit at times, I have no complaints. My ears are still ringing as I write this, so the volume definitely wasn’t an issue.

ACDC6A giant bell swung above the stage during “Hells Bells”. The busty, tattooed, animatronic Rosie kept the band company during “Whole Lotta Rosie”. Angus rode a raised platform in the middle of the crowd while bathed in confetti during a solo toward the end of “Let There Be Rock”. Then he proceeded to spin around on the ground like a child throwing a fit, before reappearing on top of the stacked Marshall amps to continue that solo (for maybe a bit too long). Then the encore started with pyrotechnics, the same way it did in San Diego twenty years earlier. Celebrating Hell once again, as well as the road that got us there, the heretics couldn’t be stopped as the place exploded in fire and brimstone. The fact that Johnson came out wearing a Manning jersey only added to the mass hysteria. It was literally hard to hear his “Highway to Hell” screams over those of the crowd. And then the whole thing wrapped up with “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)”, with six canons firing into the audience, just as it did when I was 19 years old. So much has changed since 1996, but it was great to see that some of the good things haven’t let time get the best of them. The set ended exactly two hours after the band took the stage.


I’ve taken this opportunity to showcase all the similarities between the two shows I’ve attended, but despite the timelessness of AC/DC as a live act, a lot has changed in the intervening years. Newsboy caps and schoolboy uniforms are amazing tools in the quest for eternal youth, but the fact remains that they only mask the aging men who hide behind them; men who have had death, dementia, and legal troubles change the make-up of their band. Worldwide tours are no easy task for a group with an average age of 65 years old. In a year where we have already lost so many musical legends, it’s reasonable to question how long AC/DC can continue a run that started over forty years ago. Ticket prices have changed as well. I paid $24 plus a $4 service fee to attend my first AC/DC concert. Last night I paid over five times that amount. Would people be paying those prices if they didn’t think it might be their last opportunity to see the band? I don’t know the answer to that question, but if this is their last tour, they sure went out with a bang. The guys in the band might look a little older than they did on previous tours, but they are still kicking ass in the race against time. They are still one of the best live bands in rock ‘n’ rock. Seeing AC/DC perform is anything but an exercise in nostalgia. For many, it’s a once in a lifetime experience. I’m just stoked I was able to do it twice.

Rock or Bust
Shoot to Thrill
Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be
Back in Black
Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
High Voltage
Rock ‘n’ Roll Train
Hells Bells
Given the Dog a Bone
Sin City
You Shook Me All Night Long
Shot Down in Flames
Have a Drink on Me
Whole Lotta Rosie
Let There Be Rock

Highway to Hell
For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)