After nearly 15 years imitating Angus Young in AC/DC tribute band Hell’s Belles, Adrian Conner is a seasoned pro. But the dreadlocked guitar dynamo still wasn’t entirely prepared for the quizzical looks she got two years ago from 1,000-plus bikers at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.
Not all of the manly men were ready to rock.
“They were truly shocked,” Conner says, giggling at the memory. “It was difficult for a lot of guys to take it at first. They just stood there and stared at us. They were like, ‘What the ****? What the ****?’ I think they were offended at first somehow, or threatened.”
“Some people looked like they wanted to beat us up.”
Not anymore. Sturgis welcomed back Hell’s Belles with open, tattooed arms in 2015. “Now they love us,” Conner explains. “... But just not ever seeing the band, or a female band of our caliber, they were definitely like, ‘What is this?’ ”
Here’s what Hell’s Belles is: The best tribute act that tours through Boise’s Knitting Factory Concert House. And that’s saying something, because today’s live-music world is filled with “tribs,” as Conner calls them.
Hell’s Belles, which will headline the Knit on Friday, Jan. 15, gets booked there every year like clockwork. Why? In the words of AC/DC: Money talks.
“Hell’s Belles is way above any other tribute that we host,” says Knitting Factory talent buyer Danny Glazier, “in terms of success, in terms of the show, in terms of attendance. They’re great.”
With the exception of Conner, who lives in Austin, Texas, all the musicians call Washington home. Members have come and gone since Hell’s Belles formed as a Seattle band in 2000. Conner joined as the rhythm guitarist (Malcolm Young) before quickly switching to lead guitar (Angus Young), a role she elevates to high-voltage levels on stage.
One thing has remained the same over the years: The AC/DC music. That’s key. Paying tribute to one of rock’s all-time legends has been crucial to Hell’s Belles’ rise and longevity. Who doesn’t want to grab a beer, raise a fist and sing along with a bunch of ladies to “Highway to Hell,” “Thunderstruck” or “Back in Black”?
“It’s just something that clicks,” Glazier says. “I’m stoked for them every time they come around.”
“Here’s the other thing,” Glazier adds. “A lot of the acts nowadays are falling back or relying on their production or their lighting package or whatever they have behind them during a show.”
Not Hell’s Belles. It’s just the five of them up there. As Glazier says, they “crush it.”
Hell’s Belles’ members obviously love the music. They try to play the songs as close to the original recordings as possible. And they realize that they’re a tribute band — a party host. “They just get it,” Glazier says. “Hell’s Belles brings a certain showmanship that I think is sort of a dying breed nowadays.”
Vocalist Amber Saxon stalks the stage with a Brian Johnson-like swagger. And Conner? If you play a little six-string yourself, it’s humbling to watch her ferociously pogo, spasm and whip her hair — all while never missing a note on that Gibson SG. She’s a stage-dominating supernova as Angus Young.
“I consider myself an actor with a guitar,” Conner explains. “It’s performance art for me. So I go out there, clear my mind, and I try to create something every night.”
“Angus can be Angus, and he can get older, and he can go and perform and evolve. But I have to be this souped-up — it’s an exaggeration.”
For the crowd, and for the women on stage, it’s a cathartic hoot. But Conner, who also performs original music (http://www.adrianconner.com/), admits that there was a time when Hell’s Belles sometimes felt like a job. That was years ago, when the band was touring in a van, playing weeknights and attempting to build a following.
These days, Hell’s Belles doesn’t tour like “a normal band,” Conner says. She’ll fly into Boise.
“We usually do at least two weekends per month,” Conner says. “Sometimes more, depending on the girls’ childcare situations, and that has been something to deal with throughout the years. And then in the summer, we work a lot.”
That’s where festival gigs such as Sturgis come in — although most crowds aren’t nearly so challenging.
Those befuddled bikers weren’t even won over after Conner mooned them several songs into the set. “They were still kind of like, ‘I don’t know about this,’ ” Conner says. “It was ‘Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’ when it started to change for us there.”
I know what you might be thinking: Why would mooning a crowd be a positive?
AC/DC fans are familiar with Angus Young’s requisite mid-concert striptease. And the fact that he didn’t always wear boxer shorts when he turned and bent over at the audience, like he does now.
Conner prefers to remain faithful to AC/DC’s classic era. Before a Hell’s Belles show, Saxon will scrawl “AC/DC” on Conner’s tush for her with a Sharpie, “and I’ll flash people with that,” Conner explains.
Alas, not in Boise, though.
“Every time I go to a venue,” Conner says, “we have to ask and make sure: ‘Do we do the butt thing there?’ Yeah, so we’re not allowed to do it in Boise.”
Stupid Idaho nudity laws.
However, Conner still will shed a few clothes, Angus-style, during “Bad Boy Boogie.” It gets hot on stage when you never stop moving.
“I like being stripped down,” she says good naturedly.
Tonight on ‘The Other Studio’
Join Tim Johnstone and me as we spin new music from David Bowie, Charles Bradley, Bonnie Raitt, Bloc Party and more. And remember, “The Other Studio” now airs earlier — at 8 p.m. — Sundays on 94.9 FM The River.
In Scene magazine Jan. 15
▪ A preview of 10 winter movies you need to see between now and spring.
▪ Idaho-raised writer Korby Lenker returns for a reading in Boise.
▪ Restaurant review: Jaker’s in Meridian.
8 p.m. Jan. 15, Knitting Factory, 416 S. 9th St., Boise. $13. TicketWeb. Opening: Defenders of the Faith, Trigger Itch