From Shanghai to Salmo to Sin City, BC/DC has earned a reputation as one of North America’s raddest road-tripping tribute bands. It’s been 20 years. And one hell of a highway. Story by Vince Hempsall.
Overhead lights cast a purplish glow on five grown men headbanging under an open-air tent at the Sunfest Festival in Castlegar, British Columbia. It’s a warm night in late May, and on one side of the tent, closest to the stage, children spastically gyrate while a guitarist dressed in an Evel Knievel jumpsuit high kicks around the wooden stage. Behind them, parents sporting foam earplugs and ball caps nod their heads in time with the beat. At the back of the tent is a wall of six speakers and the lead singer bent over a microphone, growling out the lyrics to AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.”
All photos compliments of BC/DC. Top photo by Adrian Wagner.
This is a very different experience from the first time I saw BC/DC years ago at a nightclub down the road. That evening involved copious alcohol, crowd-surfing, vomit, and a friend tearing her ACL in the mosh pit. But it’s the same high energy from the guys on stage, which is impressive given the tribute band is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Ever since their first gig in tiny Ymir, British Columbia, they’ve enthusiastically covered the songs of AC/DC, one of the world’s greatest rock bands, at over a thousand shows in venues ranging from the historic Harley’s Underground bar in Shanghai to Montreal’s Bell Centre stadium.
Still, their favourite gigs are in the small mountain towns they were reared in. “We’ll play in a place like Vancouver and it’s a whole bunch of tables of individual groups,” says lead singer Brendan Raftery. “We’ve played rural Saskatchewan, and because everybody has known everybody forever, there’s more likely to be a fight at the end of the night.… But in a small mountain town, there are just enough travellers to make for a good mix of people. Everyone’s carefree and letting loose as opposed to uptight city folk.”
BC/DC’s humble beginnings can be traced back to a house party in Rossland, British Columbia, where Raftery met guitarist Brian Kassian. “It was the late 90s and rock ’n’ roll was nowhere,” Kassian remembers. “I asked this producer how to make money in the industry and he said, ‘Start a tribute band.’” So they did. Their first show was in a barn on June 19, 1999, and included lead guitarist Mike Hodsall, drummer Paddy Duddy, bassist Chris Archibald, Kassian on rhythm guitar, and Raftery on vocals.
That line-up has changed somewhat through the years. Marc-Andre Hamelin is now lead guitarist and Eric Hoodicoff is on drums, but Kassian is still going strong and says he’s never missed a show in the band’s 20-year run. “How is that possible?” I ask. “Jäger” is his reply. I question him about what life is like travelling from one gig to the next. “After about 13 years, we made the decision to stop touring in the winter,” he says. “But there’s no escaping life on the road. It doesn’t matter how big you are; there’s the same weird food, weird sleeping … there’s no end to the obstacles. The bands that survive learn to overcome.”
Despite the hardships of touring, BC/DC has never taken itself too seriously. Throughout their history, the lead guitarist has always worn a silly costume, from a cow onesie to lederhosen. Band members constantly joke about the fact AC/DC covers their songs, and on tour they use their stage names, like Mangus Hung and Spliff Williams. Plus, their road trip stories are legendary. Raftery shares one tale in which the tour van broke down in Jasper, Alberta. They looked around the parking lot and spotted two guys in a pick-up truck so they approached and asked, “Wanna save a rock ’n’ roll tour? We need to get to Grand Cache.” The dude in the passenger seat immediately replied, “We’re in! Where’s Grand Cache?” Raftery laughs at the recollection. “They drove us all over the province that long weekend. And they partied hard!” he says. That’s the other great thing about the band: they know how to party. Even though the three original members are near the half-century mark, they still stomp and headbang along to every tune. They’ve incited a bar brawl in Rossland, violated capacity limitations at multiple establishments, and been shut down for being too loud—at a bar in Las Vegas.
Let’s not forget, though, these guys are supremely talented musicians. Raftery was classically trained as a member of the British Columbia Boys Choir. Kassian has played with renowned punk band My Dog Popper since 1988 and also launched the band Kings of the Ice Age. And the others have played with heavy-metal outfit Savage Blade, which signed to Germany’s Pure Steel Records.
Still, when legendary rocker Alice Cooper calls you the best AC/DC tribute band out there, you have to take the credit. BC/DC’s fun-loving, hard-partying, straight-ahead-rock-and-roll style has endeared it to its Kootenay fan base and enticed others to flaunt the band around the world. Elevation Kiteboarding School’s Mark Bavis first saw BC/DC at a show in the Vancouver Island town of Cumberland and has since flown the band to La Ventana, Mexico on two separate occasions to play at the kiteboard festival there. Retail giant Target had them do a private gig at a mansion in Aspen, Colorado, where they played with Danny Carey of the band Tool and partied with snowboard phenom Shaun White and Jack Osbourne, son of Ozzy.
They’ve been feted by millionaires in Thailand, foosball champions in China, and the Canadian Football League, yet offstage they’re just regular guys. Raftery spent years in Rossland, Ymir, and Slocan Park before moving to Port Moody, where he works as a photocopier repairman. The others continue to live in the West Kootenay in Castlegar, Nelson, Crawford Bay, and Ymir, doing jobs ranging from web design to ad sales.
Perhaps that’s BC/DC’s most endearing quality: they’re mountain-towners at heart like the rest of us who need to let loose every once in a while and bang their heads.