AC/DC Live Review: Rock titans leave Wembley thunderstruck

Antipodean legends mark 50 years of decibels with the first of two massive shows in the capital.

AC/DC Perform At Wembley Stadium

by George Garner |
Updated on

AC/DC

Wembley Stadium, London, July 3, 2024

To rock or not to rock, that is the question. Or at least that is the question AC/DC never really had to ask themselves until fairly recently in the context of their storied career. Early on into their Wembley Stadium show, they answer it emphatically. “You guys are a sight for sore eyes,” says vocalist Brian Johnson, taking in the audience with a grin. “We’re gonna pick up where we left off, have some fun, and play some rock’n’roll.”

Where they “left off” is an interesting point to consider. On paper they’re right where they belong. From their 200 million-plus record sales to their live shows, AC/DC have always operated on the grandest scale imaginable. After all, this is a group who once had their own stage erected solely for their headline set at Download Festival in 2010 while everyone else, Rage Against The Machine and Aerosmith included, shared a different one. Their predilection for all things colossal clearly endures as they play this, the first of two shows at Wembley Stadium on a world tour partly conceived to honour their 50th anniversary.

But while AC/DC’s stature - and, indeed, sound - has remained gloriously unaffected by the ravages of time and passing trends, recent years have seen their ranks hobbled by tragedy and misfortune. The line-up that takes the stage is not the same one last glimpsed in London in 2016. A lot has happened in the intervening eight years. The touring of 2014’s Rock Or Bust record saw founding member Malcolm Young stricken with dementia and Brian Johnson leaving the band after losing his hearing, with more line-up switches besides. They found a way around, most famously with Axl Rose deputising for Johnson on vocals and surprising many by being a) punctual and b) actually very impressive. With Johnson out, the subsequent death of Malcolm Young in 2017, plus the retirement from active touring duty of bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd, legitimate questions were asked as to whether the voltmeter of this most electric of bands was hovering just above zero.

Then, out of nowhere, came 2020’s Power Up – an album made lovingly in tribute to Malcolm Young (and comprised of riffs the late guitarist worked on with his brother Angus long before he passed away). Against all odds, it also welcomed Brian Johnson back into the fold – a medical device that essentially uses his skull’s bone structure as an audio receiver restoring his hearing and voice. Tonight marks the first glimpse of this new chapter in the very, very large book of AC/DC history. It doesn’t disappoint.

They begin all guns blazing with If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It) as Angus Young stomps around the stage in mesmerising fashion, all while kitted out in full school uniform. But while he hogs the limelight initially as the song unravels it’s hard not to be drawn to the man in the flat cap. Brian Johnson wastes no time making his return to centre stage felt. Coarsely melodic, melodically coarse – however you view his distinctive voice, it makes light work of reaching the back rows in Wembley. Not that he particularly has to worry when their second track is an imperious run through Back In Black and every person in the venue knows the words. It ends with him blowing kisses at the crowd and delivering double fist pumps like he’s just scored a 95th minute winner.

In the battle between this being the Power Up Tour (as officially billed) and a 50th anniversary celebration there is a clear winner. What transpires is a set that largely leans on hits – Shoot To Thrill, You Shook Me All Night Long, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and many more besides – with each received rapturously by an audience that seemingly have the tracks baked into their DNA. At one point, Johnson essentially plays giddy choirmaster as the stadium sings along to Thunderstruck. But if AC/DC have largely made it easy for themselves in this regard (what mass congregation of people doesn’t want to sing Highway To Hell?) the performance is certainly not one of a band on cruise control. It’s hard not to be swept up in the uncomplicated purity of their vision: rock songs written about rock played in a way that irrefutably rocks. That their stage props remain so exquisitely literal is the icing on the cake – the ominous intro of Hells Bells replete with a giant bell dangling from the rafters never fails to disappoint.

Though this is the first opportunity to hear Power Up material played live in the UK, it transpires that only two tracks are aired: Shot In The Dark and Demon Fire. Say what you want about the lyrics to Shot In The Dark (‘A shot in the dark beats a walk in the park’ goes the chorus), the words nevertheless hold Wembley captive in a manner that holds its own against the classics. “Alright!” beams Johnson afterwards in his wonderfully rich Geordie accent, clearly heartened by the reaction.

The only disappointment is AC/DC perhaps inadvertently do their post-millennium renaissance period something of a disservice. Only the title-track from 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip crops up from that album, while the commercially rejuvenating 2008 Black Ice record is given but a solitary nod via Rock N Roll Train. Meanwhile, there is nothing at all from 2014’s Rock Or Bust (not performing Play Ball at Wembley? For shame!). Most strangely of all, the two best songs on Power Up, Realize and Through The Mists Of Time, are both absent, the latter a missed opportunity given the real sense of gravity it possesses – a song which captures AC/DC in a rare, elegiac mood that actually suits them incredibly well.

That is not to say that this is a poignancy-deficient show. For one, there is the visible – and felt – absence of those key members no longer on the stage, of those retired and those no longer with us. It’s only accentuated when you see Angus Young, aged 69, duckwalking around the stage with such vitality. He reasserts his claim as the most expressionistic guitar player on Earth in grand fashion. No-one has ever done more – certainly not facially – armed with just three chords (or even two), each strum seemingly coming from deep within his marrow. During Let There Be Rock, he is raised up on a scissor lift, delivering an orgiastic solo while lying on his back and moving himself around in circles. In the middle of a blizzard of confetti. It’s all very low-key. Yet for all the spectacle – and this is a show full of it – it is his physical exertion that impresses most. Often glimpsed with his hands to his ears, a man perpetually in search of an ever-louder roar from the crowd, it is a thing of beauty to behold. Watching him, it could be 1974. Or 1980. Or 1995. Or 2008. Only it’s 2024, and somehow AC/DC are still playing a stadium with the wide-eyed glee of a band doing it for the first time.

They end proceedings with a louder-than-artillery rendition of For Those About To Rock (We Salute You). There is a strong argument that between the preparatory nature of its title and epic initial build-up they’ve long been deploying the perfect opening song as their perennial set closer. Wherever it falls, it speaks volumes on their behalf. The sentiment housed in the song’s brackets carries weight. Tonight, AC/DC salute their loyal crowd and Wembley Stadium returns the gesture right back. It took a lot of heartache, determination and even some medical advances to get to this point, but onstage they put paid to all questions that have been asked of them in recent years. Rock was the answer all along.

Setlist

If You Want Blood (You've Got It)

Back In Black

Demon Fire

Shot Down In Flames

Thunderstruck

Have A Drink On Me

Hells Bells

Shot In The Dark

Stiff Upper Lip

Shoot To Thrill

Sin City

Rock'N'Roll Train

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

High Voltage

Riff Raff

You Shook Me All Night Long

Highway To Hell

Whole Lotta Rosie

Let There Be Rock

Encore:

T.N.T.

For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)

Picture: Jim Dyson/Getty

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