If you’ve ever been to a sporting event, you’ve inevitably heard the booming sounds of AC/DC blasting through the loudspeakers. It’s part of the cultural milieu; it’s the familiar crowd-pumping rock jams that sound great in cavernous, already-loud spaces. For those anxious to hear the Australian band outside of a stadium though, they’d get their chance once again with the five-piece stopping by Toronto to play an open field.
As part of their Rock or Bust world tour (taken from the title of their 17th studio album), fans were anxious to see the band grace the Downsview Park stage. Excited, too – but the overwhelming sense running through the crowd was that this could be their last chance to see AC/DC. Rumours have been swirling for some time now that they’d be going out on this one and that this Toronto stop would be their last in the city.
Between former drummer Phil Rudd’s legal battles (for attempting to procure a murder, death threats, and drug possession) and last year’s retirement of guitarist Malcolm Young due to dementia, it’s fair to admit the band’s been in the spotlight for controversy and showings of age as much as for their music.
It’s also, though, hard to imagine AC/DC just dropping off. With 40,000 people standing in a large field with their eyes glued to the stage and flashing red devil horns blinking on top their heads, it’s hard to believe there won’t be more of a send off for AC/DC when they decide it actually is time to kick the proverbial bucket.
They’re big on big moments, too, and there was definitely an air of festival-like grandiose to the whole thing. Between an endless line of food trucks, the sheer mass of people there, fireworks, explosions, and the fact that the TTC had to operate special buses to accommodate all the commuters, Thursday’s show was a testament to the band’s stadium-sized legacy.
The 20-song setlist followed the familiar formula – their most popular, 1980’s Back in Black, edging out the rest of the material for dominance. It didn’t really matter what they played though, truth be told. As one song ended and, following a brief smoke break, the next one began, the roar of the crowd would return – everyone already deep in AC/DC’s pocket.
Of course the night’s true star was guitarist Angus Young who handles his instrument with a deftness that comes through years (and years and years) of experience. Both he and vocalist Brian Johnson made good use of the stage space, running back and forth from left to right. The band’s more auxiliary members – bassist Cliff Williams, guitarist Stevie Young, and drummer Chris Slade – mostly stayed back, away from the spotlight. It’s a formula that works, though, with Johnson and Young so enigmatic that they don’t need much support outside of the musical backing.
It was an exceptionally loud show, but it was also the type of show that sounded better sans-earplugs. As much as I try and employ protective ear practices, this was a concert where you had to be overwhelmed by noise to fully appreciate it. With the earplugs in, you heard less of the crowd’s enthusiasm and unfortunately noted more of the signs of age in the band and the now-diminishing returns of their former capabilities.
Johnson admittedly struggled with some of the higher offerings with his voice giving way now and again – though everyone else seemed too busy shouting along in their own off-key voices to really care. On “High Voltage”, Johnson growled his way through the otherwise elusive high bits, leading the crowd through a call-and-response to compensate for the slightly out-of-reach notes.
But when Angus soloed, boy oh boy did people pay attention. During “Sin City”, he played guitar with his tie. He again took the spotlight through his playing for “Shot Down in Flames”. And, for the last of their main set offerings, he went (calculated-ly) feral – dropping to his back on an elevated catwalk as plumes of confetti shot over the crowd for “Let There Be Rock”. Yes, there’s absolutely a reason why they call him one of the best guitarists in music. It’s an earned descriptor.
AC/DC was light on banter – filling in-between song times with some rather momentum-stilting smoke breaks – preferring instead to get the crowd riled up through music alone. Other big hits included the familiar: “Back in Black”, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”, “Thunderstruck”, “Hells Bells”, “You Shook Me All Night Long”, and “T.N.T”.
Seeing AC/DC is just one of those things. It’s big, it’s in your face, and it’s like being at the biggest frat party you’ve ever been invited to. With the red devil horns hawking at $20, obviously an AC/DC tour is about as profitable a venture as you can find. So although you can already see the cracks in their musicianship, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if they returned again on a proper “THIS IS THE END OF ROCK” world tour. And it’ll rock just as much, even though those cracks might get deeper. In their favour is the fact that sometimes you just need to stand in a field and hear those familiar songs you’ve heard thousands of times before. Sometimes you just need that spectacle. Sometimes you just need to be reminded of how much of an impact AC/DC has had.
Thanks to Live Nation Ontario for media access.