When a giant bell lowered from the rafters Sunday night at Xcel Energy Center, nobody in the sold-out crowd wondered why. When cannons popped up onstage at concert’s end, everybody knew what guitar lick to expect next. And when the guitarist in schoolboy shorts put a pair of devil’s horns on his head, the arena collectively acted like it had gone to heaven.
Surprises are as rare as politically correct lyrics at an AC/DC concert these days. The 16,000 fans who turned out for the Aussie hard-rock legends’ St. Paul gig didn’t see a show much different from their last time here in 2009, or from the five or six local performances before that.
Least surprising of all, though, that sameness was greeted with open arms and raised devil horns Sunday. Those aforementioned moments — stage prompts for “Hells Bells,” “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” and “Highway to Hell,” respectively — were predictable but irresistible, as was most of the two-hour performance.
The one big difference this time around was the absence of co-founder Malcolm Young (brother of the band’s nefarious problem child Angus Young), whose rhythmic guitar parts always anchored Angus’ hyper Chuck Berry licks. Malcolm’s dementia forced the band to replace him on tour with the Youngs’ nephew, Stevie.
Like Malcolm did, Stevie stuck to the back of the stage straddling one side of the drum riser while longtime bassist Cliff Williams stood on the other side and late-’80s drummer Chris Slade was back in the middle. Unaware fans probably didn’t notice the difference.
The band took the stage with a moon-landing video montage that found their space capsule ricochet off the Hells Bell and rocketing through Inflatable Rosie’s legs before crashing into a fiery mess for the opening song “Rock or Bust,” the rousing title track off the group’s just so-so 2015 album. AC/DC played only one more new song after that, though, and wasted no time getting to the oldies with “Shoot to Thrill” and “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be” up second and third.
His voice faded to mostly just a deep growl and raspy squawk, singer Brian Johnson — who took over for the late Bon Scott in 1980 — actually fared better with a lot of the Scott-era songs than he did with some of the songs he helped originate.
Maybe that’s why there were so many — and thankfully so — including “High Voltage,” “T.N.T.,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” and “Sin City.”
Johnson nailed those tunes’ wicked tone while failing to hit the high chorus notes of “Back in Black” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.” He still looks like a guy you’d avoid mouthing off to in a bar, however, and ran from side to side with gusto.
Of course, there’s always been one band member that matters most in AC/DC. Angus Young carried the show as much as ever, and reliably so.
Perhaps in part because of his teetotaler lifestyle — something of a dark secret in the band’s lore — Young, 60, is more capable than most other hard-rock guitar heroes of his era at nailing his fast and furious parts. He played an especially hellbent “Thunderstruck” and shredded frantically at the end in “For Those About to Rock.”
Young’s showman antics are still top of the line, too — from his countless goose steps across the stage to pulling his necktie across his guitar neck in the “Sin City” solo to falling on his back and spinning around wildly in “Let There Be Rock.”
With its biblical riffing on the genesis of rock 'n' roll, "Let There Be Rock" was the most godly part of the show alongside its sexually madcap predecessor “Whole Lotta Rosie.” But you probably already knew as much, since that pair has highlighted AC/DC concerts for decades.
Here is the set list from Sunday's concert:
Rock or Bust
Shoot to Thrill
Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be
Back in Black
Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
Rock 'n' Roll Train
Given the Dog a Bone
You Shook Me All Night Long
Shot Down in Flames
Have a Drink on Me
Whole Lotta Rosie
Let There Be Rock
Highway to Hell
For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)