The scene onstage at Jimmy Z’s is unmistakable: the singer is screeching “Sin City,” right hand on the mic, left hand cocked at the side like it might just fire bullets from the fingers drawn in a heavy metal devil salute. Several feet away, the guitarist’s head is in a non-stop nod to the beat; a schoolboy necktie squirms under a burgundy Gibson SG.
Uh, but wait a minute… this Angus Young is wearing a miniskirt. And the person rocking the spotlight isn’t a middle-aged Aussie man, but a twentysomething African-American woman.
Ding dong, welcome to the world of Hell’s Belles, Seattle’s all-female AC/DC revue.
“I think they’re shocked. Pleasantly surprised,” bassist Sylvia Wiedemann said of most crowds before a recent gig in this port town. She and her bandmates – including Angus imitator and band instigator Amy Stolzenbach and singer Om Johari, who takes on the roles of late AC/DC singer Bon Scott and current frontman Brian Johnson – have been selling out shows all over the Puget Sound region since forming last May.
“By the third song they’re usually joining in,” Wiedemann said. “They let their hair down and basically have a good time, which is mostly what we’re here doing.”
Staind and Crazy Town may rule the airwaves these days, but AC/DC are hotter than hell nearly 30 years into their career. You can see it not just in the platinum sales of last year’s Stiff Upper Lip or the band’s sold-out shows, but in the number of tributes to the band that have hit the streets in recent months – cover outfits, country adaptations and acoustic interpretations have all made their way toward AC/DC’s legion of fans.
Hayseed Dixie were born from a car crash in Deer Lick Holler, Tennessee, according to band leader Barley Scotch. The poor soul who smashed his ride left behind a pile of AC/DC records, which Scotch and his pals Cooter Brown (guitar), Wilson Cook (dobro) and Cletus Williamson (bass) snatched up and learned to play bluegrass style.
OK, so that’s not quite the truth. Scotch is studio owner John Wheeler and his cohorts are all vets from Nashville sessions and country tours. But Hayseed Dixie’s A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC undeniably demonstrates that AC/DC write songs first and foremost. You can play ’em metal style, or you can play ’em country, they still hold up.
“Back in Black” was the trickiest to arrange and still hang onto the song’s core, Wheeler said recently.
“Playing that double time doesn’t work, because it’s such a syncopated riff. So we ended up opting to do it with a swingy, jazzy sort of approach. There was a temptation to do ’em all as ‘UN-cha, UN-cha, UN-cha,’ traditional bluegrass. We specifically tried to not do that so the whole thing doesn’t sound monotonous. ‘Let’s Get It Up,’ we did that more of a Texas swing kinda feel to keep the whole thing from sounding like a polka record.”
That versatility is one of the reasons that AC/DC have thrived over the years, according to the band’s original, pre-Scott singer, Dave Evans, who left the group in 1974. Last year, Evans saluted Scott on the 20th anniversary of his death with a gig fronting the Australian cover band Thunderstruck. Diehard fans can find a CD and video of the show for sale on Evans’ Web site.
“That basic beat must touch the human basic instinct,” Evans said. “That’s been going on for thousands and thousands of years. It probably goes back to the caveman days. It’ll probably always endure. As soon as you hear that drumbeat, without any music even, people start bobbing.”
But there’s no beat at all on Mark Kozelek’s What’s Next to the Moon, on which the Red House Painters leader reimagines tunes such as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer” and “If You Want Blood” in quiet acoustic settings with new melodies. He approached the album more as a creative challenge than as a tribute, he said. As unlikely as it sounds, Kozelek turns even crass material into tender work.
“Depending on who’s singing the song, and how the melody is changed, a word or a phrase or a lyric can take on a whole different meaning,” he said. “It ends up sounding deeper than what AC/DC meant by it.”
Hell’s Belles change nothing in AC/DC’s lyrics for their show. But the objectification that pervades a song such as “Touch Too Much” is automatically thrown in a different light when the crowd sees a woman singing it, Stolzenbach said.
No matter what people think of AC/DC’s politics, they appreciate a band that’s remained singularly focused on hard rock for 28 years, she said.
“What comes across in having them not change – and I’m not saying they haven’t evolved as musicians and that they approach things from a slightly different angle – is just that they’re very real. People can see that they’re real and that they like what they’re doing.”