“WHAT does AC/DC stand for?” a girl celebrating her 16th birthday asks 15 minutes before the Australian rock legends begin the post-Malcolm Young era.
Earlier, Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee had waited patiently at Coachella’s guest check-in without being recognised by anyone. The same goes for the Eagles Joe Walsh, seen raiding the merch tent but completely unknown by this demographic (he went for an AC/DC hoodie).
Australians Tame Impala, on immediately beforehand, admit from the stage they’ve never before seen their countrymen live. This is not a generation gap, it’s a chasm.
“I hope you like rock’n’roll,’ Johnson, 67, tells the audience after a blistering opener of “Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be”
Missing from the rhythm guitar was founder and band leader Malcolm Young – and drummer Phil Rudd. The band had played without them before but Young, who has dementia, is now gone for good.
In their places are nephew Stevie, 58, and the returning Chris Slade, 68 – two major line-up changes since the last show five years ago.
If the pain of losing Scott propelled and inspired Back In Black, then Young’s absence could be said to have inspired an incendiary opening to AC/DC first show permanently without him.
“Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be” is followed by “Shot Down In Flames” and “Back In Black”. Angus has a red velvet schoolboy uniform for the occasion and there’s latent aggression in between the powerful simplicity, particularly during “Shot Down In Flames” which is afforded a jaw-dropping rendition here.
Right then, after just a couple of songs, it is apparent AC/DC are not a spent force. Angus Young is duck-walking, jumping, kneeling, raging against father time for two straight hours in an astonishing individual performance.
But things are different with Stevie Young. His backing vocals are distinctively NOT those of Malcolm Young, the absence of whom is possibly even more noticeable in that department than that of Michael Anthony from Van Halen. Stevie has a voice than can be immediately discerned from that of bassist Cliff Williams. You wouldn’t call these harmonies.
Some songs suit his voice – he does a great “oi!” in TNT – but doesn’t fair so well on “Rock’n’Roll Train” or “Thunderstruck”. Similarly, his playing enhances “Have A Drink On Me” and “Let There Be Rock” but the riffs on “Hell’s Bells” and “Whole Lotta Rosie” lack the usual exclamation mark and feel just a tiny bit like they are being covered.
Three songs are featured from Rock Or Bust – the title track, “Baptism By Fire” and “Play Ball”. Johnson virtually apologies for the last of these, which does not translate well live, before it starts by saying “this is our first gig in six years so if there are any fuck-ups….”
As is often the case on the first show of any tour, there are long gaps between songs as band and production staff attempt to iron out kinks from rehearsals.
The stage set – festival-sized and scaled down from what AC/DC will take on tour – features Slade’s drumkit embedded in a wall of Marshalls. Typically, “surprises” (if you’re 16) are kept for as long as possible – the inflatable Rosie, the “Hells” bell, the hydraulic lifts fellow the stage and atop the speakers, the cherry-picker 50 metres out into the crowd.
Because this is not a rock crowd, the noise is a fraction of what Ackadacka will encounter on their upcoming global trek. At one point, the encore of “Highway To Hell” and “For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)” almost doesn’t happen because of the mute response.
Then, new chant – given birth by an audience which shared none of its life with Bon Scott – showly gathers momentum. “AC/DC” followed by five quick claps may sound lame to the band’s hardcore fans.
But it brought them back, Angus bleeding from both knees from his earlier acrobatics.
If you still want blood, they still got it.