INDIO - “I hope you enjoy rock ‘n’ roll,” AC/DC singer Brian Johnson told the audience Friday night at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. “Because that’s all we know how to do.”
It was, Johnson later told the cheering crowd, AC/DC’s first full performance in six years. It was also the kick-off of the 42-year-old band’s world tour, as well as its first concert trek since its co-founder, rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, had to step down after it was disclosed last year that he had been diagnosed with dementia. He has been replaced in the band’s touring lineup by his nephew, Stevie Young.
Also missing was drummer Phil Rudd, who was arrested in New Zealand last year on charges of threatening to commit murder and possession of methamphetamine and pot. He has been replaced by another former AC/DC drummer, Chris Slade, who has rejoined the group after a 20-year absence.
These changes might critically impair a less determined band. But with Johnson and lead guitarist Angus Young at the fore, AC/DC still packs a powerful punch. Its 20-song Coachella performance lagged periodically, but that was due more to lapses in song selection and pacing than any musical deficiencies.
Johnson has a hell-raising, rafters-shaking voice - comparable to the aural equivalent of slashing razor blades - that would be impressive in a powerhouse young singer, let alone a 67-year-old man. Angus Young, a relative youngster at 60, repeatedly strutted across the stage, often employing the duck walk moves popularized by rock pioneer Chuck Berry in the 1950s.
Young’s slash-and-burn playing had a searing impact throughout. Yet, while there were more guitar solos in AC/DC’s first five songs than the typical Coachella band features in its entire set, nearly all of Young’s solos were lean, mean and to the point. Johnson is an affable front man who brings a rare quality, humor, that is sadly lacking in most other hard-rock bands, new or long established.
Slade drummed with authority, while bassist Cliff Williams and new addition Stevie Young each demonstrated rock-solid conviction. Together, with Johnson and Angus Young, they showed how durable the band’s most elemental songs can still sound. On Friday, those songs included such classics as “Back in Black,” “Dirty Deeds Done Cheap,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Whole Lotta Rosie” and the perpetually celebratory “Highway to Hell,” which was the first of two encores.
The set list also included three songs the group’s 2014 album, “Rock or Bust,” including the title track, “Shoot to Thrill” and “Play Ball,” which may have been one too many. The decision to pair two slower songs, “The Jack” and “Hell’s Bells,” midway through the concert led to a loss of momentum that prompted hundreds of fans, if not more, to leave early.
Otherwise, there was a feeling of shared exultation between the band and its audience, many of whom jumped up and down, sang along to the better-known songs, pumped their fists in the air and engaged in giddy head-banging. The inclusion of such rarely heard numbers as “Have a Drink On Me” and “Sin City” was a bonus for longtime fans.
That AC/DC qualifies as an anomaly, not only in this year’s lineup, but in any previous editions of the 16-year-old festival, is undeniable. But the predominantly young audience gave the Australian-bred band a hero’s welcome, and deservedly so.
Or, as Mike Voight, a 21-year-old fan from Chula Vista put it in a Friday afternoon U-T San Diego interview: “Just because AC/DC are old doesn’t mean people don’t like them.”