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LOUD AND PROUD

AC/DC/Wachovia Center, Philadelphia/Nov. 17, 2008

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AC/DC has made headlines of late as much for its music as its business decisions. The venerable hard-rock act struck a deal with Wal-Mart to make the department store the exclusive retailer of its hot-selling new CD, Black Ice; it has remained one of the few major acts that refuse to allow its material to be sold at online destinations such as iTunes; andit has signed on for its own version of the popular Rock Band video game.

At this stop on its first full-fledged tour in eight years, AC/DC proved that while it may be navigating new music-biz models these days, the business of being a live band remains remarkably unchanged.

And over the course of 100 hard-charging and sometimes age-defying minutes, you might say that the quintet made a powerful case for itself as perhaps the most reliable name brand in music. The fans got precisely what they came for, what they absolutely knew was coming at every turn and, spontaneity be damned, that did not make the night any less thrilling.

As usual, the band took few chances with the set list, sprinkling five of the better offerings from Black Ice among 13 well-worn classics, all of them except one dating to 1981 or earlier — but by the looks of it, AC/DC fans don’t turn out in search of surprises. They come to hear songs about familiar touchstones — devils, angels, hell, temptresses, thunder, even explosives, and in the case of one of the new tracks, something called a “War Machine” — all delivered loudly and proudly, without pretense.

Beginning with the slinky, swaggering “Rock N Roll Train,” the band launched an unyielding chug of its time-honored riff-heavy rock. The set opener and new single’s blues-boogie groove immediately makes it sound at home alongside old staples like “Highway to Hell,” but to dismiss it as a retread would be to miss the point, for the astonishing thing about this performance is that no matter how many times AC/DC cranked out the same formula, the payoff never failed to excite. It usually went like this: a deliberate build-up to a huge-as-hell, if slightly ridiculous chorus (sample: ” ‘ Cos I’m T.N.T. … I’m dynamite. … Oy! … Oy!”) and a breakneck guitar solo or two by Angus Young that often found him slide-stepping or sprinting across the stage.

Helping Young work the crowd was ever-shrieking singer Brian Johnson, who like the 53-year-old Young, seems to have made few concessions to age. He somehow sports chiseled lumberjack-like arms even at 61, and he still sounds like he’s threatening to shred his vocal cords on just about every song, but he hit every high-pitched squeal and stalked the stage sufficiently.

Meanwhile, the band’s immovable foundation — metronomic drummer Phil Rudd, rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young and bassist Cliff Williams — maintained a much more low-key stage presence, exerting themselves only when absolutely required.

The spotlight, as expected, largely belonged to Angus to entertain, in between blasts on his Gibson SG, with his usual antics he has been employing for decades. He and his band mates don’t just indulge in clichés: They beat you over the head with them. There was Angus’ time-honored striptease shtick midway through the blues stomp of “The Jack,” which saw him shed most of his schoolboy uniform; extended histrionics during a scalding version of “Let There Be Rock,” which more than once found him flailing away wildly at his guitar while lying on his back; and his grand entrance following the encore, when he was elevated from beneath the stage much to the crowd’s delight and amusement, sporting his trademark devil horns, to slam out the opening riffs to “Highway to Hell.”

The lead guitarist’s accessories were not the only stage props, however. There was a large locomotive engine resting on a riser behind the band‘s gear, billowing smoke, for most of the show (a “Rock N Roll Train” — get it?). Even better, it was replaced late in the set during “Whole Lotta Rosie” by a giant inflatable doll in the likeness of Rosie, rock ‘n’ roll’s most famously, er, full-figured sexual conquest.

And if there were any doubt that subtlety is not in AC/DC’s arsenal, the evening’s finale, the headbanger hymn “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You),” climaxed in a few loud call-and-response choruses, plus a dozen or so ear-splitting cannon blasts that sent fans to the exits satisfied — but not before many of them stopped to snap up more yet tour merchandise on their way out of the arena.

Indeed, the Black Ice tour may amount to a world-famous act enjoying a resurgence in popularity, or maybe simply taking a lucrative victory lap. Either way, AC/DC clearly is back in business.

— By George Henn

AC/DC’S SET LIST FOR NOV. 17:

“Rock N Roll Train”
“Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be”
“Back in Black”
“Big Jack”
“Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”
“Thunderstruck”
“Black Ice”
“The Jack”
“Hells Bells”
“Shoot to Thrill”
“War Machine”
“Anything Goes”
“You Shook Me All Night Long”
“T.N.T.”
“Whole Lotta Rosie”
“Let There Be Rock”

ENCORE:

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