Sporting a velvet-blue school boy outfit, 12-year-old Kyle Janes isn’t just acting out the boyish rock n’ roll spirit immortalized by legendary AC/DC guitarist Angus Young more than three decades ago — he’s living it.
“Is your voice changing on you, Kyle?” asks Tom Brown, co-manager of High Voltage, a local tribute to the Australian rock icons.
“Maybe you should lay off the back-up vocals. Do more Angus stuff.”
The shy lead guitarist frowns as he gently sets his prized cherry-red Gibson SG against an amp, looking to the band with a stare that says, “Just wait, you’re next.”
The five-member band, an average age of only 13, is rehearsing in Brown’s finished basement for their act that’s just hours away — at Crazy Jack’s, a biker bar on the south end of Fort Collins. They’re still tinkering with a few songs.
“I’m basically like the 12-year-old Kurt Cobain,” says lead singer Jake Johnson, the self-described outsider and newest member of the band, as he reviews the lyrics to “Thunderstruck.”
“But I’m not going to marry Courtney Love,” he says, puffing up his chest under a skull and cross bones T-shirt. “I’d never have my wife in some chick band.”
Weighing no more than 80 pounds and without the decades of abusive drinking synonymous with the hard rock lifestyle, Jake doesn’t exactly have the shrill vocals and brawn of AC/DC’s Brian Johnson. But with that trademark beret-tilted-forward and denim vest, the kid has the attitude.
In the corner, two friends of the band watch intently from the opposite side of a tattered brown couch, which has been crammed close to an Xbox and TV to make room for the makeshift practice stage.
Upstairs, parents of four of the band members make small talk and compare busy schedules that include middle school football practices and karate and jiu-jitsu lessons on top of a twice-a-week band practice for what they agree is “the devil’s music.” And they’re only half kidding.
The parents periodically venture down the vibrating staircase to bring snacks and provide pointers as the band blasts through the set list — a range hitting nearly three decades of hits like “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” and “Highway to Hell” to lesser-known songs like “Girl’s Got Rhythm” and “Bad Boy Boogie.”
“You have the words to ‘Thunderstruck?'” Brown asks.
“Yeah, it’s just a matter of timing.”
Brown tosses Snoopy gummy chews across the room to Trevor Brown, his 14-year-old son and the band’s drummer with a penchant for shirtless and pantless Tommy Lee antics.
“It’s the glue that keeps the band together,” he says of the snacks.
For those about to rock
Don’t be fooled by the lack of height and armpit hair; Voltage isn’t that lackluster, half-assed garage project whose demo tape you threw out in the ninth grade.
These kids wail, and their stage show rivals the excitement seen in AC/DC bar tapes during the early 1970’s, when original front man Bon Scott introduced the world to dirty lyrics and a most shameless display of raw rock n’ roll rebellion.
As the band’s former after-school instructor Harley Osterlund puts it: “There’s this great AC/DC tribute band made up of kids, and it’s not a novelty act. . When you see it, you’ll call everyone you know and tell them to get their asses to the show.”
Osterlund, 35, formed the band when Trevor, just a drum student at the time, expressed interest in learning some AC/DC songs to play at his school’s talent show.
“I told him I had a better idea: Let’s form a band,” he said, adding that he acted as the lead singer and guitarist for the first show.
Two years later, the band is completely adolescent with rhythm guitarist Dante Malara, 12, and 16-year-old female bassist Tiger Kaufman — completing the lineup in honor of Malcom Young and Cliff Williams.
“I’m just the Asian,” Dante says, laughing. But he’s also “the only one in the band who smiles at a show.”
The Fort Collins Musician’s Association recently honored Voltage as “best tribute band,” and notoriety among local hard rock holdouts who are paying to see their shows is growing.
“They’re not prodigies. They’re just kids who work really, really hard,” Osterlund said. “You wait and see where these kids are like in a year.”
Trevor says his interest in AC/DC, a band far before his time, sparked when he was five and his mother played “Highway to Hell” on the way to the babysitter’s. His rock n’ roll foundations have yet to be shaken.
“I’m in eighth grade now,” he says from behind his drum set, complete with the electric “High Voltage” logo. “And they all listen to hip-hop and that bull crap.”
“When I was five I used to skip over ‘Hells Bells’ because it scared me,” Kyle says.
Almost in unison, the band scoffs, “You tool.”
With a new singer to help with original lyrics, Voltage looks forward to writing their own music. When they do write their own stuff, “it will sound a lot like AC/DC,” Trevor says, in the same confident tone that directs the band in rehearsal.
A long way to the top if you wanna rock n’ roll
As Brown and Steve Malara, Dante’s father, work to book shows in town and even in other states like Wyoming and Nebraska — mostly bars and clubs — the devoted group of parents supports their children’s passion, but with caution.
“The idea of Jake being at a bar,” says Jake’s dad Rik Johnson, as the song “High Voltage” beats up from the kitchen floor. “And some drunk (guy) with booze and cigarettes on his breath talking to him .”
“We make sure it’s a controlled environment,” Brown says. “We get them in and out.”
On top of steering the band from the life of excess — Snoopy chews are OK — the parents are also the financiers, dropping thousands of dollars each to support the band, which isn’t exactly making millions yet.
Malara can’t remember if Dante’s Gibson Les Paul was $3,000 or $4,000. For the parents who have fronted the dough, it’s a sour subject.
“I’ve pretty much quit counting,” Brown says, pulling his stringed earplugs around his neck and rolling his eyes. “(Trevor) tried to give me $6 the other day, and I said that doesn’t even start to cover the interest.”
Let there be rock
Hours later, as Voltage sets up the stage at Crazy Jack’s for the night’s gig — last Saturday — parents and children mix with the usual crowd of middle-aged, beer-drinkers wearing leather vests and shirts that read: “Screw the whales. Save the hair bands.”
The band takes the stage, tie-wearing Kyle in front, and the crowd offers reserved applause, perhaps expecting a “cute” opening act.
But as Voltage begins to play “Back in Black” with Osterlund, who looks hugely out of place, heads turn to the masterfully timed and surprisingly accurate rendition of AC/DC’s 1980 comeback single.
The children take to the dance floor as the adults set down their drinks and cock their heads.
Jake takes over the stage, having clearly studied the current Irish front man’s moves. The feel of the room turns from interested, to surprised, to impressed.
“How y’all doing?” Jake asks.
As the crowd hoots and cheers, Trevor rises up behind his set, revealing his AC/DC boxers, the only piece of clothing he wears to a show.
“Cool,” he says, with a smirk and a long pause. “This one’s called ‘High Voltage.'”
Like they’ve been doing it for years, Kyle and Dante hop on raised barrels to the left and the right of the stage, playing as Jake belts the lyrics to “High Voltage.”
“And you ask me why I’m in a band?/I dig doin’ one night stands.”
In true Angus fashion, Kyle runs about the stage, hopping off the drum platform, into the crowd, duck walking through the aisles, at one point dropping to the floor, pushing himself in a “rock clock” circle in the middle of the dance floor as he plays his solo.
Forty-something women join the kids on the dance floor, gawking at the young guitarist who is clearly in his element. Jake, not currently experiencing a pesky pubescent voice change, completes the band in form and delivery, as the rest of the band keeps the song moving.
Voltage finishes the set with “Rock n’ Roll Train,” AC/DC’s newest single which has yet to reach record stores, to great fanfare. But an encore isn’t in the cards — it’s time for ice cream, and then it’s bedtime.
“I don’t know what it is,” Brown says after escorting the kids away from the odor of beer and sweat. “But they’ve got something.”
Enterprise Editor J. David McSwane can be reached at email@example.com.