Saturday, 11 April 2015

Hells Bells!

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!

In early 2014 I appeared at a concert to honour the late Bon Scott, which featured the guys from Hells Bells, the original singer from AC/DC, Dave Evans, and another guest vocalist. This was my first taste of playing a set of AC/DC songs and, I have to say, I had a blast. Playing at the Astor Theatre was a treat, and I found all the guys easy to work with. Shortly after the gig, I settled down to learn a whole repertoire of AC/DC songs, and my education began. I had spent many years playing in cover bands learning lots of other people's stuff, and had learned a stack of music, but I had only really played a couple of AC/DC songs in that whole time. The whole set list was new material for me, so I dug in. First up - the Back In Black album.

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.

The gigs were something I hadn't experienced for a while - loud, rocking and well-attended. I was accepted by the Hells Bells faithful from the first gig - in fact, I was groped by an over-enthusiastic fan in the front row during a guitar solo at my debut gig, which the rest of the guys found quite (okay, very) entertaining. They considered it my induction. Could've been worse, I guess. There is something about playing on a decent stage with good production to a big crowd of rock fans that never gets old. Once I had the songs under my fingers, I had little to think about on stage apart from rocking out and having fun, so it was easy to walk onstage and relax quickly into the set. Mal managed things well, and for the most part, everything ran well. It was a little taste of the good old rockstar days, and it was just what the doctor ordered after a couple of years of very 'real' real life thay had left me questioning what to do next musically. The answer was to get out and just play some rock and roll, and not take anything too seriously. Donna even came and did a couple of gigs when Wayne had a stint in hospital for an appendectomy, which was a rare treat for us both and a huge success. I was almost a year into my Hells Bells tenure when things unfortunately changed again.

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 ©

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