Bonfest! Celebrating ACDC’s Bon Scott
The Thrums is a cosy public house that takes its name from the works of one of Kirriemuir’s famous former residents, JM Barrie. You can imagine that, for most of the year, locals sit at the bar and chat about the Scottish premier league or whatever’s made the news. Today, however, the place is heaving. People are four deep waiting for their pint and crammed into the pub’s every corner. Bizarrely, the television is tuned to the game between North Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs. I strike up a small-talk conversation with an Australian couple also watching. It isn’t until they’re ushered away that I make the connection – the man is Mark Evans, former bass player with AC/DC.
We’re in Kirrie, as everyone calls it, for the tenth annual Bonfest, a celebration of the village’s favourite son, Ronald Belford Scott. The three-day party offers free music in the town’s pubs and nightly gigs by rock bands and AC/DC tribute shows, as well as talks, signings and a market day. It was all due to kick off at 1.45 on this Friday afternoon with a re-creation of the famous film clip for ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top’ – well, as closely as you can re-create something shot on Melbourne’s Swanston Street in a tiny town in the Highlands. The fully loaded vintage lorry was all ready to go when the storm came. Stupid storm.
Still, you can’t keep a good rocker down, and the equipment has been hastily moved into the Thrums where the atmosphere is building. There are folks here dressed in kilts, denim jackets covered in AC/DC cloth patches and Bonfest ‘Crew’ t-shirts; then there are others who just look like your average beer drinker out searching for a quiet shandy. Are those guys going to be surprised. Finally, the band hits the stage and the weekend is officially on like Donkey Kong. If anyone was in any doubt they merely needed to check the number of empty glasses rapidly accumulating on the tables edging the room.
This year Bonfest is an especially big deal for organisers John Crawford and Graham Galloway. Not only is it the tenth year they’ve run the gathering, but this is also going to be the biggest one ever. The nighttime activities have moved from Kirriemuir Town Hall to a big top on a field at the bottom of the hill. They’ve assembled a huge cast of Bon’s band mates and friends – along with Mark Evans, there’s the rocker’s longtime confidante and sometime girlfriend Mary Renshaw, Tony Currenti, who drummed on AC/DC’s debut High Voltage, and Bob Richards, who filled in for drummer Phil Rudd when he was having some trouble with the law. Then there’s Saturday’s big event, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves because today things are just getting warmed up.
There’s not so much a stage at the Thrums as a part of the floor marked out by foldback wedges, speakers and equipment. The first band due to appear, a local trio called Ganked, has been bumped to accommodate the changing situation. Two fully decked-out pipers stand at either edge of the room, the members of Bon The AC/DC Show file in, Mark Evans grabs the bass, and they finally get to let rip with ‘Long Way to the Top’. ‘The Jack’, ‘TNT’ and lots of back-slapping and cheersing later, and we’re back on schedule.
The guys from Ganked finally get to take their spot. It soon becomes obvious Bonfest isn’t all about AC/DC, as much as the crowd would, perhaps, prefer it. This is more acoustic than metal, and Ganked plays a fistful of hits from the likes of the Police, Feargal Sharkey and Dexys Midnight Runners.
“When are you going to play some real fookin’ rock,” yells a red-cheeked bloke wearing a patched vest. Not to be intimidated, the band launches into ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. Eventually, they give the crowd what they’ve been waiting for and play a lesser-known AC/DC track, ‘Big Balls’.
It could never have been the organisers’ intention, but AC/DC is definitely in the news this weekend. Long-time singer Brian Johnson had announced he’d be leaving the band due to hearing issues, and in the days before the gathering in Kirriemuir the group’s tour dates had been rescheduled with Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose as the replacement front man. No one, it seems, is happy.
“I’d rather do this than go and see AC/DC with Axl Rose,” a man in a kilt says to his mate in another of the local pubs, the Roods. “It’s all over now,” his friend replies, mournfully. “The drummer’s in prison, the singer’s deaf and the guitarist is gone.” He takes a long swig of his pint.
It’s a common conversation over the weekend. People who have tickets to see the band in Portugal, London and other cities in the weeks to come are trying to offload them to no avail. No one is sure how Rose, who is known to have a precarious relationship with time management, would go playing with the hardest working band in show business. There is talk that Angus, the only remaining original member, should simply call it quits. (Everyone’s fears were for nothing: Rose won acclaim for his gigs with the band. Johnson, meanwhile, has been testing a new in-ear monitor that should allow him to get back out on the road.)
As the afternoon draws on, fans begin slipping out of the pubs to form a tiny procession down the Kirriemuir hill to the field where the evening’s entertainment will begin. There’s the huge big top, where the bands will play, two smaller ones selling merch and drinks, and a burger van. A small huddle of tents with a backdrop of hills doused in snow is pitched a small distance away. This is the sanctuary of the crazy-brave types who have booked the £20 weekend camping tickets.
Each evening, three bands are going to strut their stuff in the big top in front of about a thousand fans, some of whom have strung up AC/DC signs announcing their own home towns. There are a lot of Germans in attendance, but also guys (they’re invariably guys) who’ve travelled in from Spain and other parts of Europe. Mainly, though, there are a lot of Scots, many of them from Kirriemuir – every shop in the town has a Bonfest display in its window and the local sweet shop has Let There Be Rock candy canes for sale – and nearby villages, as well as cities further afield. Despite the huge number of people who’ve filled Kirrie to almost breaking point, there’s still the atmosphere of a village fete. It appears as though everyone knows everyone else, but, as the weekend wears on, it becomes apparent it’s more that everyone is quite happy to meet everyone else.
First up this evening is Reddog, a power trio from Crieff, about 75 kilometres away. The sound is certainly AC/DC-esque, but, thankfully – since how many times can you really listen to ‘Highway to Hell’ in one weekend? – they mix originals in with covers like ‘Cold Hard Bitch’ by Australian band Jet, who were once described by NME as a mix of the Rolling Stones and Acca Dacca. They’re followed by guitar rock band, the Ruckus, from Aberdeen.
The crowd has grown as the sun has set, the beer tent has been doing a roaring trade and everyone is primed and ready for that night’s main event, Back:N:Black. Go to the band’s website and you’ll see this modest claim: “We’re just five girls who dig playing AC/DC more than anything.” Yes, girls. They’re based in Switzerland, tour the world, have played Montreux Jazz Festival and, from the second they step on stage, they’ve got the Bonfest crowd in the palms of their hands. It doesn’t hurt that they are smoking hot, but they certainly have the tribute band thing nailed. They are pure rock, from their torn tights to the note-perfect re-creation of AC/DC’s hits, starting with ‘High Voltage’ and leaving no fan favourite from their sprawling set list. No one, least of all them, it seems, is keen for the night to be over.
The next morning, there’s a collective sigh of relief. Today is the Big Day, and the sun has burst through the cloud. In the Kirriemuir car park, a substantial crowd begins to gather as the morning draws on. Stalls are set up selling coffee and baked goods, artwork and AC/DC memorabilia. There’s a truck (this one covered) set up with gear for an afternoon set by Spanish tribute band Chaman, and people are gathering around a tall iron fence. Within it there’s a large, blanket-covered form. For the past two years, the Bonfest crew and AC/DC fans have raised £45,000 to have a statue of Bon Scott made and erected in the town of his birth. As the time for its unveiling draws ever nearer the crowd swells. They’re banked up the hill and perched in trees and on fences – anything that’s a bit higher and gives them a view of proceedings. By the time Mark and Mary tear off the coverings to reveal sculptor John McKenna’s work – bagpipes, tatts and all – an estimated 2500 people are watching. It’s an emotional moment, particularly for those who knew the singer. “I always liked Bon, and now I know why,” says Mark to the assembled masses. “He was from here.”
Qatar Airways flies from Australia to Doha with excellent (read: quick) connections to Edinburgh. Return fares from Melbourne start at about AU$1650. From Edinburgh, Scotrail services to Dundee, the largest centre near Kirriemuir, run a number of times each day and the journey takes approximately an hour and 40 minutes. Return fares, purchased in advance, start at about AU$25.
There are some B&Bs in Kirriemuir, but you need to book early to secure one over Bonfest weekend. There’s a Happy Bus (return tickets about AU$20 each day) that travels from Premier Inn North and Premier Inn West hotels in Dundee to Kirriemuir during the festival. Double rooms at the end of April start at about AU$80 a night.
Next year’s Bonfest runs from 28 to 30 April. Tickets can be bought from the website. Live Wire: A Memoir of Bon Scott by Three People Who Knew Him Best, by Mary Renshaw and John and Gabby D’Arcy, is being released by Allen & Unwin in paperback in November.