On the weekend, I had the opportunity to watch a couple of rock & roll tribute bands, Dark Room (Angels) and Thunderstruck (ACDC), perform at Lucky 13 Garage in Moorabbin, South East Melbourne. My friend, George Milhe, is the bass player for Dark Room, and if he weren’t playing, I wouldn’t have bothered. I love music, but I’m getting old.

It is the second time I’d seen Dark Room at this venue, so I knew what to expect. Whereas it was my first time seeing and hearing Thunderstruck. Both the Angels and ACDC were huge in my formative years, but sadly I didn’t ever have the pleasure of seeing either band playing live around the pubs when I was a young man. By then, ACDC had moved overseas in search of fame and fortune, and I think the Angels may have been riding high, meaning that they probably didn’t need to play the pub scene so much.

rock & roll venue
Lucky 13 Garage

Curiously, neither band really did it for me as a young man. I bought one Angels album, and while I enjoyed ACDC in relatively small doses, I didn’t really feel the urge to buy anything from them. I’m pretty sure that if I’d seen either band live, I probably would have been a bigger fan. Live music has always been the litmus test. You can’t fake rock and roll live. You’re either the real deal or you aren’t.

These thoughts were running around my brain while I sat, sipping a beer, waiting for the action to start. The venue brings back a lot of memories, although thankfully, the owners have had the foresight not to lay any carpet. Some memories are best forgotten, and beer-soaked sticky carpet with the accompanying stale odour is one that I’d prefer to leave behind. But otherwise, the venue feels a lot like the Eureka Hotel, the Collendina or a smaller version of Bombay Rock. Except there is one key difference.

Those venues of my youth carried an element of danger, particularly with the type of rock and roll bands that the Angels and ACDC are. That edge isn’t there. Sure, there were lots of tattoos, shaven heads and full beards that you generally associate with pub rock, but this crowd is older, happier and less likely to start trouble. Age does that to people.

Rock and Roll in Aussie Pubs was the original school of hard knocks.

Aussie pub rock had to be experienced to be believed. Feedback could be brutal and immediate. Bands had to have thick skins and an attitude to survive. Legend has it that in the early ACDC days, Bon Scott took matters into his own hands on several occasions. I can remember that Cold Chisel caused a riot at the Golf View Hotel (a blood house if there ever was one). There was one night I attended at Bombay Rock that I can recall where the support act was mercilessly crucified. Every band was tried and tested. If you couldn’t cut it, too bad, so sad – next!

Both ACDC and the Angels were forged in this unrelenting furnace. They paid their dues, took their licks and got on with it. It served them well and bred a brash “take no prisoners” attitude that made the punk rock movement not necessarily irrelevant but somewhat unnecessary in Australia. The attitude was already forged and proved to be much more durable than punk. So durable that both bands have inspired a plethora of tribute bands and copycat acts across the globe.

If you’re going to dare to pay tribute to either band, you’d better be able to pull it off. Playing a cover is one thing; paying homage is an entirely different matter. The crowd may have mellowed, but they can remember the real thing. Near enough won’t be good enough.

I’ve seen Dark Room. I know they’re the real deal. Thunderstruck will be interesting. Soon the lights dim, and Dark Room hit the stage.

Dark Room Slayed It

The band is on point right from the very first note. There is something visceral and almost primal about a live rock and roll band that has got its act together, and there is no doubt that Dark Room is a band that has done the hard yards.

Led superbly by engaging frontman Brendan Vernal, Dark Room offer fans as close to the real thing as you will find. At times you could be forgiven for thinking that the spirit of Doc Neeson has possessed Brendan as he cavorts, sneers and gesticulates with all the charisma and effervesence that Doc ever had. Not only can Brendan assume the role of Doc Neeson, he can sing every bit as well.

As good as the rhythm section and lead guitarist are, it is Brendan who makes Dark Room work as a tribute band. Without a frontman who can capture the spirit of what the Angels were, Dark Room would not work. As with the Angels, it is the front man who draws the eye, holds the audience in a spell and entertains while the musicians do what good musicians do – play tight and well. It goes without saying that Brendan couldn’t perform his role without having the backing of four seriously good musicians. It’s a formula that has served many bands well.

I watch my friend, George, closely during the performance. He is having a ball, and I remember the reason why I took up the guitar in the first place. Performing isn’t the reason, although that’s part of it. It’s belonging to something that is bigger than the sum of its parts and giving everything you’ve got to make it happen. I am envious.

By the time Dark Room is into the third song of their set, the place is jumping. Men older than me are up, pumping their fists and tapping their feet. Two bottle blondes on the table beside me are up and dancing, desperately trying to recapture days long gone. People forget where they are. They are transported to another time and place where their bones and muscles don’t ache, and life is still full of possibilities. Having captured the crowd, the band plays on with a ferocity and power that the Angels would recognise for what it is. Their set lasts ninety minutes, and they seemingly wring every last drop out of their audience before retiring for the night.

They would be a tough act to follow.

Thunderstruck -ACDC tribute

ACDC has an enormous catalogue, and choosing a setlist would be quite problematic. The show is divided into two sections – Bon and Brian. Each set is at least an hour long. As I’ve sort of alluded to, ACDC has never been on my must-listen list. I get them, and I appreciate them, but I lose interest after four or five songs. Maybe that’s because I’ve never seen them live. Maybe, I outgrew them when I was sixteen.

They are different to the Angels, although both bands plough very similar ground. Both bands rely on a tight rhythm section that allows enough space for the vocalist and lead guitarist to shine. There is no compromise in either band, but if I were to make a distinction, there is more subtlety about the Angels, and their lyrics paint word pictures that are at times terrifying or disturbing. ACDC, on the other hand, has lyrics aimed squarely at a 15-year-old male. I’ve always found their lyrics to be cartoonish.

With that said, and keeping in mind my previous statements about the harshness of the Aussie pub rock circuit, I can’t help but admire what they have been able to achieve on a global scale.

When Thunderstruck hit the stage, I find that Brendan Vernal has transformed into Bon Scott. If you could close your eyes and just listen, you’d swear that Bon was alive and well and singing up a storm. Brendan is some talent, and he manages to capture Bon’s mannerisms, vocal delivery and stance. This time though, he needs a partner to deliver the full ACDC experience.

That partner is Angus Young clone, Shaun “Webby” Webb, who captures the very essence of a young Angus. When the band hits the stage, the two frontmen own the place, working in tandem to deliver the full-throttle show that ACDC must have delivered in those early years.

It’s mesmerising and bludgeoning at the same time. The crowd is in rapture.

You can’t help but move with the music and let it take you.

I can well imagine the impact that the original band had back in the mid-seventies with a snarling Bon standing alongside the manic schoolboy guitarist, backed by a sledgehammer rhythm section. It would have been something to behold. I look around and see people taken by the music – their music, and they’re in heaven. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap nearly brings the house down. As do TNT and High Voltage, but it’s the foot-stomping, show-stopping Long Way to the Top that takes the audience over the top.

It is a triumph for the band and the spirit of rock and roll.

I’m a rock & roll pumpkin

By the time the first set had ended, it was close to midnight, and I knew I had a fairly long trip to make back across town. So, I called it a night, with my ears ringing and my faith restored in live music. Rock and roll has seen better days. Its glory days are behind it, but as long as there are people willing to listen and people capable of playing it well, it won’t fade away. There were enough young people scattered through the audience to say that the end is not nigh.

But the advent of computer-generated music, coupled with an increasingly docile and subservient youth, means that many people will never experience the frisson and rebellious nature that live rock and roll offers. It’s a pity because those keeping the flame burning are worth seeing and listening to.

If rock and roll dies, bands like Dark Room and Thunderstruck will make sure it does with its boots on and all guns blazing.

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By Mark