In my confirmation email from the record label representative, I was told that travel from Manhattan to Wilkes-Barre, PA, (“Wilkes-Berry?” “Wilkes-Bar?” Actually, it’s “Wilkes-Bear-Uh”) and back for an exclusive AC/DC performance Sunday night would be by VIP Bus. For those of you who don’t know what a “VIP Bus” is, predictably, it’s a bus that looks like a limo from the inside. Meaning wavy-edged mirror ceiling with colorful lights, comfy leather bench seats, and lots of places to stash drinks.
It also means pizza, chips, pretzels, assorted candies, ice buckets full of water, soda and beer, AC/DC’s live DVD No Bull, and later This is Spinal Tap, playing on two screens, and a bus driver who keeps making jokes about how fucked up you all are getting and tells you, with a nudge and wink, that you can go ahead and light up a smoke if it’s ok with the other passengers.
It was this bus and some 30 others that Sony arranged to transport fans and industry folk to the Wachovia Arena to see AC/DC’s final dress rehearsal for the “Black Ice” World Tour, their first outing in eight years which begins tonight. Promotional tickets amounting to a little over half-capacity of the 6,000-seat arena were distributed, and contest winners who couldn’t make their own way to Pennsylvania gathered in New York and loaded onto buses. Other fans tried their own luck — like the three zealous Italians who traveled across the world and New England with no guarantee of entry, counting on the benevolence of the organizers (they got in).
We arrived early and decided to tailgate. By the time my buddy and I made it into the arena, AC/DC were 15 minutes from their scheduled 8 P.M. opening. We maneuvered through mobs of sweatshirt-clad adult fans and slowly wandering, barely-organized packs of children to our stage-left seats. Gazing over some 3,000 milling bodies, only one fellow stuck out — in an orange and yellow day-glo, leopard-print jacket and foot-long black Mohawk. He basked in the attention of pointers and picture-taking Joes like a mini-celebrity.
By the time the lights on the long stage lit up, the crowd was on its third wave of cheering. The pitch turned frenzied when a screen dropped and a sex-and-devils-themed animation began, in which an AC/DC train is hijacked by a pair of barely-clothed babes, who seemed to have gained entry onto the coach by — ahem — feminine wiles. The audience maintained its roar until the closing fireworks and flash bombs revealed a giant train above the stage and the five members of the band appeared, looking reliably familiar in black sleeveless shirts.
Compared with No Bull, which was filmed in 1996 in Spain, greyer hair and slightly reduced agility are the only significant changes to AC/DC’s performance. Brian Johnson still sports impossibly tight pants and forces his vocals through a Ninja Turtle-like open-cheeked grimace. Malcolm Young and Cliff Williams still flank the drum set unobtrusively unless called upon to trudge forward and contribute backing vocals. And Angus Young still rules the stage like it was built for his pale knees alone (and it was). Of the set’s dozen-plus numbers, only two were new — “Black Ice,” and “Rock and Roll Train” — and, as everyone in the audience seemed to have made it to Wal-Mart, the bellowing sing-along made Black Ice tracks almost indistinguishable from older hits.
The emphasis on chicks and explosions remains, as fireballs spit from the locomotive’s wheels during the shouted letters of “TNT,” and “Whole Lotta Rosie” featured its subject’s lingerie-clad, dirty-kneed likeness expanding in a matter of seconds to straddle the train with leg-shaking delight. Reveling in old favorites, the band performed practiced renditions of “Back in Black,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “Hells Bells,” and “You Shook Me All Night Long,” to the constant, screaming thrill of the audience.
Angus Young closed “Let There Be Rock” by pinballing shirtless around the stage and doing a Homer dance on circular hydraulic platform, 15-feet above the crowd. And, for the final song of their two-song encore, “For Those About to Rock,” six cannons shot off smoky booms that echoed through the arena with the sonic power of an air show. Though only lasting about 70 minutes, the performance contained everything one could expect from AC/DC. That is, the archetypically familiar and the brightly spectacular.
On the drive back to Manhattan, more pizza was chowed, more candies unwrapped, and a screening of Office Space received wearied chorals of, “And I told them, I told them that if they move my desk one more time…” and “Yeahhh, I’m gonna need you to come in on Saturday.” I missed most of this, as I was curled into an uncomfortable corner, trying to sleep off the buzz caused by a giant, pineapple-shaped bank of hanging speakers blasting the heaviest rock’n’roll into my unplugged ears.