"MOST ROCKERS STILL are under the assumption that the industry is led by men and cannot be re-created by women, and that it takes balls—literally—to play rock 'n' roll. I've never figured that one out—considering we all play with our hands," quips Heather Madden, bass player for Seattle's Hell's Belles, an all-female AC/DC tribute band that is rapidly becoming one of the most sought after and highly paid cover acts in town. Formed a mere five months ago, the Belles have proved that their dirty deeds don't come cheap—and that they may have the biggest balls of all when it comes to rendering femme-centric versions of AC/DC favorites such as "The Jack," "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)," and, of course, "Big Balls." Their overnight appeal has landed them the opening slot for KISW's "Not So Silent Night," the classic rock station's holiday concert featuring the bankable metal monstrosities Megadeth and Gruntruck.
Hell's Belles is the brash brainchild of guitarist Amy Stolzenbach, a veteran Seattle musician whose previous work includes pop psychedelic band Flood and a recent stint in Kim Virant's backing band. "I was at work one day, listening to the song 'Touch Too Much' [from Highway to Hell] and there was this line: 'She had the face of an angel, smiling with sin, the body of Venus with arms,' and I thought, "Wow, 'Venus With Arms,' what a great name for an all-girl AC/DC cover band," Stolzenbach recalls. "Then it occurred to me, 'Hey, I'm a girl and I like AC/DC,' so I got excited, but then kind of shelved it for a while. When you're in the space where you're playing in an original band, you really don't want anything else to distract from that. But then I bought an SG."
As any AC/DC aficionado knows, the Gibson SG is the signature instrument of guitarist Angus Young. The purchase inspired Stolzenbach's search for other women who would gladly help turn the bad boy boogie of one of rock's most notoriously macho groups into a sassy, estrogen-powered good time. "It took a while," Stolzenbach says. "I'd hook up with people, but one by one they kept dropping out." Then she ran into powerhouse vocalist Om Johari at a Kim Virant show. "I asked her if she wanted to be in an all-girl punk band," Johari says, "but she suggested an all-girl AC/DC cover band, and I said, 'Fuck yes!'"
Johari's commanding, husky voice and sultry, confrontational stage persona made her the ideal frontwoman. She also provided the introduction to guitarist Sylvia Wiedemann, who in turn brought thunderous drummer Laura D on board. Madden, also the bassist for vivacious punk quartet Hafacat, filled the remaining slot. As Hell's Belles, they had only a handful of rehearsals before playing their first show at the OK Hotel last July, but the response was overwhelming. Their second show, a benefit for local promoter and all-ages activist Kate Becker, sold out before they even hit the stage of Ballard's Sunset Tavern.
THE NEARLY INSTANTANEOUS success of the Belles is more than a savvy marketing idea or the novelty of the gender reversal. Cover bands are only as good as their technical skill and charisma, two qualities the Belles have in spades. "I think at first people were coming to check it out to see if we could pull it off," says Stolzenbach.
"But when they see that we can, they really get into it," adds Wiedemann.
The audience response is understandable: Stolzenbach's renditions of Young's solos are flawless; the rhythm section of Madden and Laura D is iron-clad; Wiedemann nails the underrated role of second guitarist Malcolm Young; and Johari's snarl shifts effortlessly between the styles of original frontman Bon Scott and his eventual replacement, Brian Johnson. "I try and invoke as much of the badass, whiskey-drinking energy of Bon Scott as I can so [audiences] know that this girl ain't fucking around," Johari says.
Badass, whiskey-drinking energy helps, but audiences also thrive on the Belles' interactive vibe. "There's a lot of audience participation," says Wiedemann. "Everyone's been super-positive." That includes KISW Music Director Cathy Faulkner, who handpicked the Belles to play to what will be their biggest audience yet.
"The reputation of Hell's Belles in this marketplace is undeniable," Faulkner enthuses. "I was struck by their unique approach to what many consider to be an old standby. I mean, really . . . an all-female AC/DC cover band? Brilliant! More power to them!"
More power indeed. In addition to swiftly building a loyal fan base of both genders, the Belles are reaping the benefits of their collaboration and camaraderie. Says Johari, "I definitely have some feminist leanings, and this is the first opportunity I've had to play in an all-female ensemble. We do things differently; we all hug each other after every practice—something guys wouldn't do. And the sexual politics don't get in the way."
So how long will the Belles continue to pave their own highway to hell? "As long as it's fun," says Stolzenbach. Judging by the peals of laughter ricocheting around their rehearsal space, it's probably safe to say Hell's Belles' live wire will be sparking for a long time to come.*
Hell's Belles play KISW's Not So Silent Night with Megadeth and Gruntruck at the Paramount Theater, Thursday, December 14.