I spent the the better part of 2014 and January of 2015 doing something that I never saw myself doing in a million years - playing in an AC/DC tribute band. And thoroughly enjoying it.
My personal trip down the Highway to Hell started when I received an out-of-the-blue phone call from Mal Osbourne, the manager and rhythm guitarist for Hells Bells. It was mid-to-late 2013, and their lead guitarist was having health issues that looked like placing his performing career on permanent hold. The band had held a meeting and decided to offer me the gig if and when it became available. I think Mal and I were both surprised when I said yes!
The first thing I noticed about Back In Black was that it is a great album. A really great album. It was the perfect statement from a band at the crossroads, and a rocker's paradise of riffs and that unique Acca Dacca groove. By the time I had learned the album, I had a whole new respect for the band and what they did. In particular the rhythm section, led by the relentless right hand of Malcolm Young. Holy crap, what a rhythm player! Nailing those rhythm parts was great fun, to the point that it was almost a shame to have to take the solos. For the most part, those guys sit right on the beat. And by that, I mean Right. On. The. Beat. If that's where the beat falls, that's where the rhythm section plays. Bang. Right there. I found myself getting left behind in the early run-throughs, but caught up quickly enough. No laying back on the beat, just play the damn thing. A great vibe to nail. And the riffs! Having played my fair share of Zeppelin, Purple and Sabbath in my day, I was partial to a good riff or three. To this day, Hells Bells is one of my favourite songs to play. Quite a few AC/DC songs aren't far behind.
I had been given a fair amount of time to learn the repertoire, so I was well prepared when we started rehearsals. Lady Zeppelin and the Jac Dalton Band had done double bills with Hells Bells and I had done community work with Mal, so we were all already good mates and there was no personal settling in period - we just got straight into having fun. The main problem I faced was remembering which song was which - with so many songs in the keys of A and E, it was easy to get intros and solos mixed up. Glenn (Warber, HB drummer) correctly interpreted my panicked visage, and would sing intro riffs when needed. Saved me a lot of embarassment, did Glenn.
The thing about Hells Bells is that they do a great job, and they have a faithful legion of fans that come to gigs, wherever they may be. Playing AC/DC is a pretty safe bet if you want to find an audience in Australia, and the crowds appreciate a job well done. We had a singer in Wayne Curnow who could cut the songs of Bon Scott and Brian Johnson with style, mimicking both to great effect and hitting the high notes. I wasn't required to wear a school uniform or play the solos note-for-note (we were'nt that kind of AC/DC band), so I had free rein to play what I wanted, with plenty of room for stretching it out and improvising. That being said, I played a lot of the solos as they were recorded, simply because they were the best thing for the song, and they were good solos. In fact, I picked up a few things from Angus that I hadn't played before, and I love learning new stuff to add to my box of guitar playing tricks.
Our 2014/2015 New Year's Eve gig was a loud one, and I had left my earplugs in my bag when we went on stage. I felt some pain in my left ear during the gig, and hoped I hadn't done too much damage. I thought things might be okay after a bit of a rest, but the next two gigs made it clear that I was in trouble. A visit to my doctor showed that I had two small perforations in my left eardrum, and my right middle ear had suffered some damage as well. That diagnosis pretty much put an end to things right there, as I couldn't risk serious or permanent harm to my hearing. I needed my hearing to function as a musician, but also as a carer. If I went deaf, I wouldn't be able to drive - an important ability for someone who is caring for two people. I rang Mal as soon as I got out of the doctor's surgery and broke the news. The guys were all supportive and understanding, and it was fortunate that there was a break before the next shows so a replacement could be found and worked in to the set. After a few weeks of noise avoidance, I started listening to music I had been working on at home, and gradually got an album finished - which is a whole story unto itself.
I had an absolute ball during my year with Hells Bells, and it is an experience I will always remember fondly. Playing good rock and roll with good blokes to good crowds is about as good as it gets, and I took away some handy guitar tips as well, courtesy of the Young Brothers. An unexpected detour on my musical journey, and one I'm glad I took.
Images courtesy GruntRat Photography and Crosbie Photography ©