October 26, 2006
By Rob Swick
Photos By Marco Herran
A happy houseful of rock-and-roll fanatics piled into Harper's Sports Bar & Grill in Northridge on the last day of September, to behold a slew of Southland musicians paying fervent homage to the hooks and looks of AC/DC, Metallica, and Ozzy Osbourne. Coordinated by All Access Magazine in conjunction with bar owner Rob Harper, it was thematically appropriate that the star-studded string of tributes to these hard-rock heroes was also a night of tribute to one hard-rockin' drummer-girl in particular, birthday-babe Stephanie Leigh. As ThundHerStruck's specialist on the skins, this talented and foxy lady helps set the beat at the heart of the tribute trend -- because, for anyone who possibly doesn't know by now, ThundHerStruck is a tribute-payin', boogie-playin', five-female outfit that dashes a dose of "you-go-girl" spice and spirit into AC/DC's mucho-macho music, much to the delight of fans of both genders.
The evening was billed as "Steph's Birthday Bash," so naturally the percussion-pounding honoree spent a lot of time in the spotlight with her bandmates, and both before and after their headliner set, there was much more musical action to keep the joint rockin' all night long. ThundHerStruck was preceded on stage first by Fireball Johnson, three gals and a guy who played a full set of originals before morphing into Girls Got Rhythm, featuring the music of Australia's loudest, proudest product -- no, not the Bee-Gees, those other blokes with initials for a name: AC/DC! Next came Bonfire, described as the prime tribute to AC/DC's Bon Scott era, further setting the vibe for Steph and company. Then later, in the afterglow of ThundHerStruck's shack-shakin' performance, Harper's horde was treated to the electric "live Metallica experience" of Damage Inc, and the festivities were ultimately capped by some "ultimate Ozzy," courtesy of the Osbourne-lovin' headbangers in Ultimate Sin.
The affair started off in a timely fashion, just after 8 p.m., while Harper's roomy interior was already well on its way to filling up. Lots of eager spectators staked their places on the good-sized dance floor in front of the stage, while others lined the busy bar, and still more took their ease at the many comfy tables available. Fireball Johnson's songlist of band-penned compositions began with "Fine Line," demonstrating from the outset the potent pipes of vocalist Carla Bosnake, who had range, pitch and presence to spare. Dressed simply in jeans and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, Bosnake blended the vocal purity of Scandal's Patty Smythe with the punchy grit of Rossington-Collins's Dale Krantz.The blonde singer was flanked by redheaded bass player Carla Betz on her right and raven-haired guitarist Min Oh to her left, both in black skirts & tops. Amiable drummer Jason Rarick looked studious with his wire-framed spectacles, and perched behind a Pearl drum kit in a work-ready jeans-and-T-shirt combo, he worked out like a champ, contributing solidly to Fireball Johnson's musical mix.
Min displayed consistent mastery over the gorgeous guitar in her hands, a custom Gibson Les Paul featuring a metallic-glitter finish, which appeared bronze in color to one observer, but which was in fact, Min said, "root beer" by designation. But the glittery axe was outshined by the radiant smiles Min kept flashing throughout the set, as she maintained an effervescent perkiness from start to finish. She was plugged into a Marshall amplifier, while Carla Betz used a Jackson bass played through an Aguilar amp. Interestingly, and conveniently, the same amps and drum kit remained in place for use by all the bands during the evening, which minimized the between-set crew activity.
Fireball Johnson's song lineup included a cut called "Summer Lovin'," which was definitely not the syrupy song of the same name from the movie "Grease," since this tune actually rocked. The band's "Drinking Song" showed some likely Aerosmith influence, to excellent effect, while on "So Long" the musicians displayed a real power-trio synergy during their extended, well-choreographed jam. The theme of failed romance popped up again in "My Love is Running Out," before the band played what was an obvious favorite to some folks in the crowd, "Laughing Clown." And it was then that a fresh drummer, Anna Yost, sat behind the kit, joined by Diana Widegren on rhythm guitar, to complete the Girls Got Rhythm package for a couple of good ol' AC/DC covers, including, of course, that rhythmic song that gave the gals the name for their band.
When the boys in Bonfire were ready to play, it was plain that they took their alter-ego roles seriously. The lead guitarist representing Angus Young (who introduced himself as simply "Steve" when chatting later) adopted the Aussie axe-man's customary schoolboy persona, wearing a black velvet shorts-and-jacket combo with a white shirt and striped tie. Like Angus, he maniacally bobbed his head while executing razor-sharp solos on his fiery Gibson SG, frequently kicking into Angus's quick-stepping prance at the same time. Bonfire's lead lick-picker may not have quite matched Angus Young's demented, rubbery leer (maybe because Steve is better-looking), but he certainly maintained the same high level of non-stop energy that Angus is known for.
Vocalist Sean did a fine-tuned job of channeling the late Bon Scott when he strode on stage in tight jeans and a denim cut-off vest, showing off his tattoos, while a steady bass line established the groove for the opening song, "Live Wire." Rhythm guitar, drums and bass (Scottie, Forrest and another Steve) were furnished in time-tested AC/DC fashion: sure but not showy, solid as cement, setting a firm foundation for flash from lead guitar and vocals.
Sean's vest was soon tossed aside while he emulated Bon's bare-chested bravado during "Riff Raff," but then he put on a curious arrow-emblazoned shirt for "Jailbreak," to represent a convict's garb. The Michigan native spoke with a credible touch of Scots-Aussie accent, noting that Bonfire doesn't want to be just a "greatest-hits" cover-crew, which the band confirmed by breaking into the scarcely-remembered "Down Payment Blues," and later by digging up an even less-frequently-heard track, "Overdose." Throughout the set, lead guitarist Steve proved himself to be an apt pupil of Angus's technique, not only by performing numerous precision-picked solos, but also by holding lengthy, feedback-tinged notes without the array of foot-pedals that many of today's players would use. And as far as frantic antics went, Steve was ready to get down and dirty just like Angus, such as when he flopped on the floor during "Bad Boy Boogie" and executed a kind of sideways crab-walk spin, without missing a lick in the lead.
The crowd was treated to a taste of delights to come when ThundHerStruck’s bombshell vocalist Dyna Shirasaki breezed onstage with Sean to sing during Bonfire’s explosive rendition of “TNT.” It was a pleasure to see two self-assured front-mike personalities sharing the spotlight with such hearty camaraderie, which was highlighted when Sean laid an affectionate lick on his lovely co-vocalist’s neck, lucky devil! Then the Harper’s horde got “Shot Down in Flames” and “Kicked in the Teeth Again,” after which the Bonfire boys said a perfunctory farewell, but abundant applause quickly brought them back to close out with “Dog Eat Dog.”
Now that the gents were done, it was time to see how another super troupe of damsels would handle the high-voltage hijinks of AC/DC’s words and music. Indeed, since the ThundHerStruck backdrop banner had been in place behind the stage all along, it could be said that the members of the female quintet were the “ladies of the evening,” with special notice going to Stephanie, as mentioned. To show that they were indeed ready to fill some seriously acclaimed blue suede shoes, the gals promptly began raising hell by ringing out “Hell’s Bells,” following up with “If You Want Blood, You Got It,” indicating they’d be sampling songs from both the Bon Scott and Brian Johnson years.
Whenever she stood or stepped out from behind the drums, fans could see that birthday-girl Steph was resplendent in a snug black top and black bike-type shorts, an outfit which admirably complemented her wavy cascade of waist-length blonde hair. Singer Dyna chose to follow Brian Johnson’s simple fashion feel, wearing a black spaghetti-strap tank top, blue denim jeans, and a studded belt. But even the plainest outfit could in no way diminish Dyna’s cover-girl looks, and her innate beauty was matched with a headstrong git-’er-done attitude and a tough-as-nails yet always on-key voice, culminating in one unforgettable, hard-to-beat front-lady. Lead guitarist Tina Wood retained the essential impact of Angus Young’s schoolboy style, but with a distinctly feminine aspect: instead of black shorts, she wore a short black skirt, and her sleeveless white linen blouse was open at the neck with a loosely-knotted cravat dangling down, and the shirt-ends were tied up below to reveal plenty of taut midriff. Bassist Andrea Zermeno went basic in a horizontal-striped top above jeans, and rhythm guitarist Carin Toti’s denims were paired with a simple black tank.
Dyna gripped a cordless microphone while belting out song after energized song, coloring her smoky vocals with the same kind of wry, sly humor that Bon Scott so famously employed. Tina also cavorted cord-free, using a tiny power-pack transmitter like Angus, but hers was so much smaller than the bulky unit hung on Young when AC/DC played the Whisky and Starwood back in the 1970s. Sure enough, Tina’s guitar looked like a Gibson SG, except that it seemed somewhat asymmetrical, because it was in fact an ESP Viper – an instrument which served admirably, in Tina’s nimble hands, to replicate Angus Young’s slashing lead-lines. The flaxen-haired schoolgirl served up her own version of that limber lad’s distinctive strut, but oh-so-elegantly, nodding her noggin with a smile all the while.
After the gals got done going down the “Highway to Hell,” an actual fire was ignited onstage, when the candles were lit on a lovely cake (made by Andrea) and served up by All Access Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Debra Stocker, in honor of Stephanie Leigh’s date of birth. The whole crowd sang “Happy Birthday,” after which Steph obligingly blew out the flames, and everyone cheered. Many happy returns to one hot, heavy-hitting drummer-girl!
Soon enough, ThundHerStruck played their signature song (“Thunderstruck,” obviously), which was handled with special care and feeling, beginning with Tina’s tasteful touch on the opening robotic-sounding arpeggios. All five ladies exercised poise, precision and power throughout, demonstrating the proof of the words of the late Janis Joplin, who sang “that a woman can be tough.” Dyna’s soulful voice seemed even to exceed the reach and raunch of Janis's gravelly wail, and she and her jammin’ companions certainly showed just as much heart as the bluesy Texan songstress, aiming to please, and succeeding triumphantly.
As advertised, several special guests lent their talents to the evening’s hard-rock hoedown, including respected percussionist Glen Sobel, who has played with Gary Hoey, among many others. Glen borrowed Stephanie’s stool when ThundHerStruck pounded out “Back in Black,” while Steph bounced exuberantly in front with her bandmates. Also notable was the appearance of Simon Wright, who played drums with AC/DC on three studio albums: “Fly on the Wall,” “Who Made Who?” and “Blow Up Your Video.” Simon seized the sticks for “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Night Prowler” and “The Jack,” looking and sounding as hip and chipper as a poster-boy for Foster’s Lager. Another welcome visitor was Phil Woodward, a guitar hero who plays in Voodoo Haze, a Jimi Hendrix tribute band. Hot licks were exchanged between Phil and Tina in an incendiary, crowd-pleasing run-through of “Whole Lotta Rosie.” And Stephanie herself was most pleased to introduce yet another temp-replacement behind the Pearl drums, an extraordinary fellow named Kurt, referred to by Steph as “an enigma.” A long-time music-biz veteran, Kurt has played with James Brown and George Clinton, among others, and what he lacks in stature, he makes up in reach and focus. On “Shoot to Thrill,” Kurt fired at will, and admirably fulfilled.
Some between-the-bands solidarity was demonstrated when Steph invited Bonfire’s Steve and Forrest to “Have a Drink On Me,” and again when Ultimate Sin’s Beth Mordaunt tickled the tom-toms to help prove that “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” and further still when a much-transformed Sean (minus the long, curly locks he had earlier, hmm ... ) joined in on “The Jack.” The hits kept coming, and the house was eager for more, even when ThundHerStruck’s lengthy set ended some time near midnight.
It was later in the witching hour when the four fellows in Damage Inc unleashed their “live Metallica experience,” but they began with a tip of the hat to Australia’s high-decibel devil-kids by playing “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” Then came a crisp, brisk stroll through several well-known Metallica numbers, including “Creeping Death” and “Master of Puppets.” Brothers Chris and Kevin Knight handled rhythm and bass chores (Kevin fingered a five-string bass), while Dave Gold shouldered lead-shredding duties and Boyd Machtolff disciplined the drums. There was no mistaking the righteous resemblance of Chris’s voice to James Hetfield’s gnarly growl, so the songs came off with the aura of authenticity. Damage Inc’s efforts were well-received by the heavy-metal holdouts on the floor, who got a final good-night gander at Stephanie when she joined the grizzled guys to “Seek and Destroy.” The band showed keen attention to tone, timing and texture, gaining enthusiastic approval for their gruff, lightning-hot execution.
And at last, sometime around 1:30, Ultimate Sin rolled onto the stage, fronted by a rotund chap named Jerry France, who sported a pair of sunglasses that were stamped with the familiar pattern of a certain outlaw herb, one that was often touted by metal-monger Ozzy Osbourne in his old Black Sabbath days. Cute, compact drummer Beth Mordaunt appeared pert and peppy in her Jack Daniels T-shirt, happy to finally be making music with her homeboys, which included Chris Brightell on guitar and Wes Mahan on bass. The foursome had time for four songs: “I Don’t Know,” “Mr. Crowley,” “Bark at the Moon” and “Miracle Man." Frank evoked the Oz-man's singing style and his good-natured banter, Chris captured the gist of the jams, and Beth and Wes put a bitchin' bite on the back-beat.
Rob Harper gamely let Ultimate Sin play right up until 1:55 a.m., permitting everyone to squeeze the last bit of goodness out of a spectacular evening. No doubt about it, Harper’s Sports Bar & Grill is a classy establishment, run smoothly by a friendly and accommodating staff. Harper’s is surprisingly spacious inside, featuring a well-equipped game room in addition to the main music-listening and sports-viewing areas. Besides hosting rock shows, Harper’s holds other “specialty” nights throughout the week, bringing a solid touch of class and fun to Northridge.
In closing, it should be noted that a glance at the club listings lately reveals the simple fact that tribute bands are a big part of the music scene these days. Someone said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and some big-name rock artists inspire so much devotion that they are "flattered" by more than one local act. AC/DC is one such favorite with a flock of flatterers, and it was a clever coup to bring three tributes to the raucous Aussies together in one gig, wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am – and it was a ballroom bonus that the show was capped with tributes to an additional pair of mighty names in metal, Ozzy and Metallica. Yep, “Steph’s Birthay Bash” at Harper’s was a truly fitting tribute, so far all those who rocked that night, both bands and fans, here’s a heartfelt salute for helping to keep local music alive, ticking and kicking. San Fernando Valley rockers, you’ve been Thund(H)erstruck!
Photos By Marco Herran