By Jeff Miers
News Pop Music Critic
I admit it. I didn’t think Axl Rose had it in him. And I was initially horrified by the idea of “Axl/DC,” the marriage of one of the few remaining hard rock ‘n’ roll bands and sometime Guns ‘n’ Roses singer Axl Rose. It struck me as a pairing born of desperation, what with erstwhile singer Brian Johnson being advised to sit out of the tour, lest he go completely deaf.
What struck me about three minutes into Sunday’s Rose-led AC/DC show at First Niagara Center was just how wrong I might’ve been. More than two hours later, I was well-stuffed from eating crow. Rose crushed it. And AC/DC? They’ve never done anything less than crush it anyway, so why should Sunday’s show have been any different?
AC/DC is a band that has spent some 40 years perfecting a strict adherence to lockstep grooves and mighty riffs expressing blues tropes as arena-filling hard rock. Some have expressed the idea that all the band’s songs sound similar. They’re not wrong, but they miss the point. All of John Lee Hooker’s tunes sound similar too. So what? If it’s a great song, why not play it over and over? Some things are just plain perfect the way they are.
To be fair, there was, within the hard-rockin’ paradigm, variety in Sunday’s set, as it moved from the straight-up boogie of “Rock ‘n Roll Damnation” to the full-tilt near-punk “Thunderstruck” and “High Voltage” without batting a bloodshot eye. It was all heavy, it was all no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll, but there were indeed subtleties observable by the well-attuned ear and eye.
The star of the 2016 version of the AC/DC juggernaut was the same man who has filled that role from the beginning – guitarist and diminutive Tasmanian Devil Angus Young, who decided as a teenager to take the blues and blues-based rock ‘n’ roll he so loved, and turbo-charge it, crank it to 11, and generally amplify its snotty, anti-authoritarian, “If you think it’s too loud, go away” attitude. So, not surprisingly, the older-but-still-virile Young was the man who drove home the point of the band’s cacophony repeatedly on Sunday, nailing the deep-pocket grooves and drilling the solos into our heads, as if his sole purpose as a member of the human race was to acquaint us with the primal, liberating ferocity of blues-based guitar soloing.
Credit needs to be given to bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Chris Slade, whose job it was to to shovel goal into the furnace all night long – no filigree, no showing off, nothing flashy lads, thank you very much. No problem for these two. They know what the gig is. Similarly rhythm guitarist Stevie Young – filling in for his Uncle, the ailing band co-founder Malcolm Young – helped to lay down the thick bedrock of these hook-heavy barn-burners.
The heat was on Rose, though. Original vocalist Bon Scott and his posthumous replacement, Brian Johnson, are both revered by AC/DC fans, and Rose spent more than his share of goodwill when he was young, fronting Guns ‘n’ Roses, and acting like a prima donna. If Rose had arrived unprepared, the Buffalo fans would’ve crucified him. But he didn’t. He came on time, loaded for bear, and in good voice. The band played the tunes in their original keys, and Rose hit he noted hard – from the insanely high “Back in Black” to the equally upper-range-demanding “If you Want Blood (You Got It)”.
Rose nailed it, from start to finish, and acted like a true professional throughout. If there were a bigger AC/DC fan than him in the building in Sunday, I’d be surprised.
But AC/DC is, in the end, about Angus Young, a sneering punk in school boy short pants with the chops of Jimmy Page, the soulfulness of Peter Green, and the sneering smirk of Johnny Rotten. Angus gave us his all. Long may he reign.