Highway to Hell review – Perth festival pulls off joyous AC/DC covers concert for the ages

<span>Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images

“Oh hello! How good is this?” comes the cheery greeting from a 30-something mother with kids in tow, to another with the same.

On any other Sunday they might’ve been cheering on their young ones at an Auskick game, but here they are, standing in the middle of the closed-off Canning Highway as a passing semitrailer takes Carla Geneve and the Floors – performing a cover of AC/DC’s Ride On – into the distance.

The Perth festival’s 2020 curtain closer – a roving concert of Ackadacka covers, performed by a variety of bands on a slow-moving convoy of flat-bed trucks, and at stages set up along the way – brought out 100,000 people on Sunday, according to the festival.

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A tribute to Bon Scott, 40 years after his ashes were buried in Fremantle, the event was titled Highway to Hell – but as another Scott tune would have it, Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, and on this particular autumnal afternoon it’s actually pretty bloody good.

In walking the 10km journey along the highway – two lanes of which are closed for the bands and the other two for the crowds to watch them – it’s the differences that make all the difference.

All four lanes of Canning were shut to make room for a convoy of trucks topped with bands.
All four lanes of Canning Highway were shut to make room for a convoy of trucks topped with bands playing AC/DC. Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images

At one moment, there’s six-year-old Miles Russo, dressed in tartan, backed by a band and singing TNT at his first ever performance, winning hearts and fans onstage at Clancy’s; only a few hundred metres away, from up above on a walkway, there’s the two devilishly adorned (and horned) ladies in red of Divalicious Opera getting all Puccini with the Western Australia Police Pipe Band on For Those About to Rock. “I’m probably gonna bugger off now and have a champagne,” one later remarks. But for the most part, beer was the order of the day.

The first of the trucks hits the highway with Kimberley music royalty the Pigram Brothers faithfully – yet soulfully – digging into the eponymous Highway to Hell. We hear that song a few more times as we walk on down the road, but everyone does it their own way. Japan’s all-female alt-rock group Shonen Knife also tackle the tune, as well as a very-Blondie-sounding Who Made Who and the 1979 deeper cut, Touch Too Much, which meets with strong nods of approval from T-shirted diehards.

Highway to Hell
Perth residents enjoy the Highway to Hell event from the comfort of their balconies. Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images

It’s not all black T-shirts and mullets, however, though there sure are a lot of those. There’s a lot of everything and everybody, in what is a diverse – and very cheerful – gathering. The Free Spirit Dance Community, a gypsy caravan and tribal belly dance group, shares their moves resplendent in leather, lace and tartan. An older gentleman sits in a folding chair nursing a beer as a truck brings WA soul sensation Odette Mercy along singing Let There Be Rock. The gentleman is stationed in the driveway of the Psoriasis & Good Skin Clinic. His skin is possibly beyond redemption, but it’s certainly a good spot.

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Elaborate picnic set-ups are found further down from the main intersections, complete with fully stocked trestle tables with Fisher Price accessories. Rollerbladers and cyclists make the most of the road while pedestrians shuffle along the footpaths. It’s all surprisingly orderly – though Canning Highway has not seen this level of street drinking since the man of the hour was a wee Bonnie, and several large liquor stores are closed down along the route by the police as a result.

Amyl & the Sniffers fill the highway, adding a punk edge to the Scott oeuvre, and they could indeed be his bastard children. Their truck pulls up to the stage at Tompkins Park where thousands are gathered and proceed to slay one and all with Dirty Deeds. Abbe May and the Southern River Band pull up to the stage 10 minutes later and charm with their take on Jailbreak, with Southern River Band singer and guitarist Callum Kramer effortlessly summoning the cheeky swagger of the man being celebrated. Following that undeniably rocksteady moment, the announcement is made that 3,722 air guitarists participated in the day’s earlier challenge – and the world record is back where it belongs. The reaction is final siren-worthy.

&#x002018;One for the ages&#x002019;: Canning Highway had its own Australia Day.
Canning Highway had its own Australia Day, soundtracked by stone-cold classics. Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images

Once upon a time, the local Holden dealer would have shone during such an Aussie celebration – but the one on Canning, perhaps unsurprisingly, is looking a bit sad. Trundling on towards the Leopold Hotel in Bicton, there’s thousands of slurry revellers trading AC/DC choruses, from Big Balls to The Jack. Everyone seems so damn happy. This thing has worked. By the time all-girl AC/DC tribute Ballbreaker close the outdoor stage of the Leopold with a set of stone-cold classics, Canning Highway is having its own Australia Day.

Highway to Hell is a never-to-be-repeated experience. You had to be there, as they say, and as the many thousands disperse – at once and everywhere – the general feeling seems to be that this particular 10km walk was one for the ages. Kind of like Bon Scott himself.