AC/DC, live in Belgrade, Serbia (2009)
The tickets and elegant, laminated bus passes were on the table, all the albums had been listened to, the Live DVD had been watched and I had now entered the calm before the storm. The next day all hell would break loose…..and break loose it did!
At exactly 15:40 on Tuesday the 26th of May I was sitting on a bus full of like-minded people heading off to the Partizan Stadium in Belgrade for the eagerly-anticipated (and by eagerly I mean ‘tickets-bought-2-months-ago-and-kept-in-a-safe-place’ kind of eagerly) AC/DC concert. Everyone was in high spirits while “T.N.T.”, “It’s a Long Way to the Top” and other hits crackled through the bus’s rusty but trusty old speakers. I was slowly coming to the realisation that this was actually happening. It hadn’t hit me…not yet anyway but I had an inkling of what I was going to experience.
About two and a half hours, drink, food and the purchase of a set of red, light-up horns later and we were inside the stadium. The first opening band (a local Novi Sad band called Amajlia) had already finished by the time we entered and we made our way down the stands onto the field, admiring the stage as we went along. I immediately walked over to the security personnel standing at the entrance to the Fan Pit area (the sector closest to the stage) and asked them if it was possible to get in there with our (non-fan pit) tickets? The young lad looked at me with a potentially ambiguous smile and said “Yeah ok, just go to my colleague over there and get those pink bracelets that will allow you in and out of the Fan Pit.” I thanked him kindly and into the Fan Pit we went. I stood in the middle of the Fan Pit and as I listened to the blues rock of Irish band The Answer (who are currently touring with AC/DC and who sound like a milder version of a Led Zeppelin/The Black Crowes concoction) I admired the stage in front of me.
This was a stage of gigantic proportions. On both left and right sides were two massive LED screens. To the side of both were two massively large structures that housed at least a million speakers each (I may have exaggerated on the number of speakers…. But there were many) and atop each structure there was a very large and bright red signature Angus Young cap, fitted with two large devil horns (which, when it got dark began to pulsate a moody red colour). The stage itself was immensely wide, reaching (as I read in a newspaper article a few days before the event) 70m from side to side. Above the stage was probably THE largest lighting rig I have ever seen above a music stage…..or any other stage for that matter. Amidst the lights at the top hung the infamous church bell with the letters “AC/DC” engraved on it and a large rope hanging from it. Behind the drum kit was a small platform and behind that another large LED screen. From the middle of the stage, a narrow ramp ran through the audience to a large square platform round about the middle of the stadium. I could sense we were all, all 40,000 of us, going to experience something the likes of which the Balkan region had probably never experienced before.
The Answer finished their set with a classy blues rock song, ending a surprisingly good performance. Their sound was nothing new or original, but it got the toes tapping and the air guitars riffing at one point or another. As the mellow jazzy/blues from some CD was playing during the intermission and as about 20 stage hands all rushed onto the stage to set up for THE performance, I moseyed over as close to the stage as I could and ended being about 10 metres from the stage itself and about two metres from the metal ramp that ran through the audience. Settled in between a bunch of long and short-haired, old and young, short and tall fans, I waited for, what I was now rapidly realizing was going to be, not just a concert, but the concert against which all other concerts will be measured. The 20 minute interval seemed to last an eternity and the anticipation was building up rapidly, not just in me, but in the whole stadium. Every time a stage hand walked on or a guitar was tested, or the background song ended, the crowd roared and chanted for the show to start.
At exactly 21h on May 26th, 2009, the massive light rig above the stage turned off and the crowd went level-1 hysterical. The main LED screen on the stage itself came on, an animated short film began to play……a train….Angus as the devil….scantily-clad women….the train is veering out of control…..Angus smiles wickedly…..the brakes don’t work…..the wheels are screeching….. Crowd hysteria reaches level-4.
The train in the ‘cartoon’ is going to crash, the animated Angus stares out from the screen….. a loud explosion, the LED screen splits into two parts and a massive life-size locomotive stage prop charges out from behind the screen…..the music begins….the lights go on, Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Brian Johnson, Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams are on stage and the song “Rock & Roll Train” crashes through the speakers…… Crowd hysteria at level 50!!
40,000 people all jumping up and down at the same time, hands, fists, devil-horn hand signs pointed to the sky, voices singing, yelling, screaming….. it had begun.
For the next two hours straight I was immersed in absolute euphoria. Like a child thrown into a pool filled with chocolates and toys or toys made of chocolate I was in complete ecstasy. The set-list was a mix of old and new songs… with the old hits dominating of course. Within 15 minutes I was soaking wet with sweat as was everyone around me and my arms were already beginning to sting but I was not deterred and kept jumping, singing, yelling like there was no tomorrow.
“Back in Black” was the first big hit that came along and thousands of voices sang along with Mr. Johnson while thousands of heads banged to Mr. Young’s solos! Needless to say that when the first notes of “Thunderstruck” were played the whole stadium erupted and sang along in unison. Another song off the new album and then Brian introduced a song about “a dirty woman”…..and they played “The Jack”…..extended solo, Angus’ striptease and all. For the next number, the large bell hanging from the top of the stage was slowly lowered and a loud ringing sound echoed around the stadium. Brian runs towards the flailing rope, jumps, grabs it and swings on it for a good 20 seconds or so. Angus comes in with the riff and “Hell’s Bells” blows the crowd away!
The band have been going at it for over half an hour now, almost 45 minutes and show no sign of slowing down. Angus is grinding his axe like a mad man and both he and Brian are running all over the stage and up and down the centre ramp, coming literally within two arms lengths of me, all the while Malcolm, Phil and Cliff are in the background providing the backbone for every head thumping song they play.
A few more songs later and they jump into “T.N.T.” where every time Brian (and the crowd) scream “T.N.T.”, large flames erupt from and around the locomotive on stage, causing the crowd to get even more excited and give every last inch of themselves to the song. The next song, “Whole Lotta Rosie” introduced us to Rosie….a 15 metre high blow-up doll in a red skirt and bra who straddled the locomotive and rode it for the rest of the main set. The finale of the main set came in the sound, shape and form of the legendary number “Let There Be Rock”, with a video montage on the screen of the band’s history displayed in the form of their numerous album covers. The night will be remembered by many because of the 15 minute long solo Angus played during this song. It started off on the main stage, then he walked up the middle ramp, played it there for a few minutes, then made his way further along the ramp….until the lights all went out and he went out of sight….playing the solo all the while, only to appear on the square platform at the end of the ramp a minute later. He continued molesting his guitar, even dropping down onto his back and playing while rolling around on his back (a signature move if you have seen any other live performances/DVD’s). The platform he was on then started to lift up and elevated him a good 5-10 metres above the ground and air-guns blew out thousands of strips of confetti all over the stadium…..Angus all the while still going with the solo. The platform then lowered and he made his way back to the main stage and then up onto the small platform above the drum set where he finally finished the solo with a thundering end.
Brian yelled out a half-hearted “Thank you and goodnight” (half-hearted in the sense that everyone knew it was not the end) and the band went offstage.
It didn’t take long until the stadium erupted into a ‘sporty-esque’ chant of “AC…DC…..clap clap clap clap….AC….DC….clap clap clap!”
Five minutes later, the stage turns bloody with all the lights glowing a fiery red and red smoke creeping onto the stage. Suddenly, from the floor of the main stage a platform is raised and up appears Angus Young, his fiery red Gibson SG guitar in his arms and a pair of glowing red horns on his head and the instantly recognisable riff of Highway To Hell pours over the audience! And as was expected….but not disapprovingly, the final song for the night was “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” and the whole stadium sang along with great enthusiasm waiting for the 10 or so canons that had appeared on stage to “Fire” on command…..and so they did, every time Brian shouted “Fire”, the canons erupted through the night and shook the foundations of Belgrade city, making sure the history books would never forget this night. The final chords, riff, bass line and drum hits were played, the band saluted us and we them and flames and fireworks concluded the show.
40,000 fans were left amazed, fulfilled and rocked out.
As we slowly made our way out of the stadium to the awaiting bus I only then realised that my arms were stinging, my thighs were burning, my (already weak) knee was in pain and slightly swollen, my voice was gone (literally), my ears were ringing and my t-shirt was soaking wet. As I sat on the bus and as the ringing in my head subsided, I knew that I had just been a part of probably one of the most remarkable musical spectacles ever to hit the region and my long time dream of seeing this amazing rock & roll band live had finally been fulfilled and that all the waiting and pain I felt afterwards was all so very much worth it and that I’d probably do it all again tomorrow.
The buses drove us back home, and as I stared out the window into the night, the blazing sound of Angus’ guitar still echoing in my head, I wondered about the band, their history, the history of rock music in general, how it started, how it progressed and came to the conclusion (based on my own opinion, of course) that AC/DC are a true rock & roll band that have the energy, stamina, power, soul and sheer grunt that even the most popular rock band of today can only hope of having. If you wanna rock & roll, it’s a long way to the top…..but AC/DC have reached the top and have cemented themselves there…and I salute them.