Clumping around the stage on a brace, jeans torn off at the knee, Axl Rose – temporary American singer of Australian rock powerhouses AC/DC – has the air of a pirate regaining his sea legs and his authority.
Rose is not smiling, exactly. But there is a malevolent gleam in his eye as he tosses a fat microphone from hand to hand, surveying AC/DC’s fans. Gone is the throne that immobilised Rose on earlier parts of this controversial hybrid tour, a prop made necessary by the injury Rose sustained at a Guns N’ Roses reunion gig in early April.
Rose’s confinement added another Spinal Tap-ish dimension to AC/DC’s already beleaguered Rock Or Bust outing. AC/DC singer Brian Johnson was forced to pull out because of hearing loss in early March. The band’s press releases at the time had a strangely brutal finality to them (“We wish him all the best with his hearing issues and future ventures,” said a spokesperson). Thousands of fans demanded refunds when it was announced in mid-April that Rose would be Johnson’s replacement.
Those fans might be repenting their decision at leisure now. Because the band we might call Axl/DC combines the strengths of both parties: AC/DC’s pulverising constancy – Thunderstruck still rumbles through the seating, Hells Bells sends your tinnitus polyphonic again – spiced up by Rose’s own damage and derangement.
Emboldened, this half-time sub with a dodgy metatarsal romps through the AC/DC classic Back in Black, screeching victoriously through very white teeth. It would be wrong to say he makes the song his own, but it’s not far off.
Back in Black is a testament to AC/DC’s own resilience after the loss of original singer, Bon Scott, who died in 1980, now something of a byword for the general indomitability of rock’n’roll, and all who sail in her. Although you don’t doubt that Rose has sung Back in Black into a hairbrush more than a few times while Guns N’ Roses were coming together in LA, Rose’s rendition is emphatically not karaoke, as some have suggested. Rose’s screech just works: not aping AC/DC singer Brian Johnson overmuch, but sharing his frequencies.
The differences, though, are marked. Where Johnson had a smutty chuckle at the ready, both revelling in, and sending up, his band’s ridiculousness, Rose is a more predatory presence, channelling a little of the band’s original singer. He can reach the high notes on Hells Bells that Johnson was, perhaps, eyeing with some trepidation. By Highway to Hell in the encore, Rose just sounds like himself.
But if Rose’s mobility is the first thing that grabs you, it is not the focus of tonight’s show. In front of the reinvigorated Rose is puppet master Angus Young, AC/DC’s founding guitarist and owner of the most overexposed shins in rock, chicken-strutting backwards and forwards along the penile stage extension. Young has always been the star of AC/DC’s shows, and tonight his primacy is underscored even further.
Young comes on first, to adulation, at the start of Rock Or Bust. His solos seem to have gained in intricacy (or perhaps Johnson is no longer there to suggest he keeps it tight). The end of this long and joyous set – Let There Be Rock – is just one protracted blizzard of electric guitar, during which Young mock collapses twice. Mid-set, he rips off his schoolboy tie and frets his guitar with it, a pint-size Jimi Hendrix in velveteen school uniform.
You come for the songs – utterly formulaic, deathlessly amusing, the sexist twaddle still irksome – but you stay for the dynamics. Rose, one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, is deferential towards the human riff machine, the last man now standing of the band established in 1973. Young’s brother, Malcolm, retired from the band in 2014 because of dementia; their nephew, Stevie Young, is installed on rhythm guitar. Erstwhile drummer Phil Rudd has been sidelined after criminal charges; his stool is filled by Chris Slade. (“Is it even AC/DC?” Rudd has wondered aloud). Bassist Cliff Williams has been a constant since 1977.
As the hits roll on, drawing from virtually every era of AC/DC, you would not say that there was any chemistry between Young and his hired hand exactly – more a dance of necessity leavened by mutual respect. Johnson, meanwhile, has a state-of-the-art hearing aid and might theoretically be able to return to AC/DC in future. In the meantime, the combined effect of Rose’s clomp and Young’s stanky leg strut is unexpectedly moving, as though, against all material evidence, there really was some truth in AC/DC’s powerful illusion of indestructibility.
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