Few bands have traveled a rockier road than AC/DC. In 1980, singer Bon Scott died when he choked on his vomit after passing out from a night of heavy drinking. In the rock world, that’s classified as “death by natural causes.” His replacement, Brian Johnson, led a massive resurgence for the band, but was ousted in 2016 after his fried hearing kept him from touring. Longtime drummer Phil Rudd was busted in 2014 for possession of drugs and for allegedly arranging a murder. Founding member Malcolm Young was forced to retire from the band that same year due to the onset of dementia, which ultimately claimed his life last month. The band managed to limp through the final dates of 2016’s “Rock or Bust” tour with the help of Axl Rose and his Ethel-Merman-on-crank lead vocals, but AC/DC’s future is murky.
Thank heaven for Hell’s Belles. The all-woman tribute band brings the AC/DC catalog to crowds around the world, and these days they deliver the goods with more piss and vinegar than the real thing. Formed in 2000 by a couple of Seattle rockers, the band has gone through a few personnel changes over the years, but the current lineup might be their most potent yet.
As with many bands, AC/DC’s twin focal points are the singer and lead guitarist. Adrian Conner is a dreadlocked fireballer playing the Angus Young part, wielding the iconic Gibson SG, while leather-lunged singer Amber Saxon belts out songs from the two distinct eras of Australia’s most successful band.
A big part of AC/DC’s sound is a relentless Swiss watch of a rhythm section, and Hell’s Belles gets it. One of the things that makes them the cream of the tribute crop is their attention to musical detail, and drummer Judy Molish and longtime bassist Mandy Leinenweber don’t miss a note. In AC/DC, the third leg of their monster rhythm tripod is the aforementioned Malcolm Young, and his part is ably performed by Lisa Brisbois and Sharon Needles, who alternate on Hell’s Belles’ tours.
Guitarist Conner pays homage to Angus Young’s trademark schoolboy outfit, opting for madras skirts rather than Angus’ stovepipe shorts, and that jerky, busted-marionette strut that the AC/DC leader has been doing for 45 years seems to come to her naturally. Her long dreadlocks whip around like an octopus in a carnival ride as she stomps, leaps and writhes on the stage, driven by the propulsive fury of the music. Fans throw the devil horns and yell “Thunder!” when Conner cups a hand to her ear during “Thunderstruck.” She’s also a role model and between the hair-flinging histrionics and over-the-top mugging, she exhorts the women in the crowd to pick up guitars and start rocking.
Saxon, who joined the band in 2011, prowls the stage with a cloth cab driver’s hat pulled down low over her jet black hair, looking and sounding like a deranged Ann Wilson, if the Heart singer had pursued a life full of biker bars and whiskey benders. But Saxon isn’t a menace—she exudes a “let’s party” vibe, encouraging fans to chant and cheer, everyone celebrating the music of the world’s biggest pub band.
Other female AC/DC tribute bands like AC/DShe and ThundHerStruck are out there, but Hell’s Belles was the first and, many say, the best. Just ask Angus Young himself. “The best AC/DC cover band I’ve heard?” he told Blender magazine in 2003. “There was an all-girl cover band in America, the Hell’s Belles.” Thanks to these hard-rocking women, AC/DC’s rock and roll will survive.
Hell’s Belles play the Darkhorse Fri., Dec. 8, at 8 PM. $15.