The Limelight must be one of the easiest places to get seriously leathered. This low-ceilinged central-Belfast joint boasts two enormous bars and backs into a pub, Katy’s Bar. Guinness is not so much a beverage choice as a way of life. And everyone is fantastically friendly. During tonight’s performance, several punters will cheerfully offer drinks or lifts up onto their shoulders, or ask if I’m looking for anyone in the huge crowd. This combination of hearty camaraderie, rock appreciation and robust drinking couldn’t be more suited to our headliners, Airbourne – boozy defenders of the A-chord since 2003, and the most ferocious live force to come out of Australia since Rose Tattoo. Or AC/DC. Where their contemporaries see bars, Airbourne see extra stages. Where others are quiet and reserved, Airbourne are categorically not. Especially not in Ireland.
“Ryan and I have Irish heritage, so when we come back to Ireland, that comes out and we get fuckin’ right into it,” drawls singer/guitarist Joel O’Keeffe, backstage a few hours before showtime. Head-to-toe in black, with a mako shark’s tooth on a black string round his neck (“Take ya leg off, mate”) and a shock of bus-fresh curls, Joel is terrifically hungover. Much drinking was done in Dublin this morning, after a post-gig trip to Phil Lynott’s statue.
“It’s like the old blood line going ‘Hey! It’s good to be back!’” grins equally suffering drummer/little brother Ryan through a dark haze of Grudge-rivalling hair. “I don’t think I’ve slept though…”
The morning-after Airbourne is a more sedate beast, perhaps. But then at sound check, flanked by a Marshall stack the size of a small house, something amazing happens. Blasting through Chewing The Fat, white Gibson Explorer strapped to him, Joel’s whole expression changes. He strides and hops across the stage like a Lemmy-Pete Townshend hybrid, joined by Ryan, guitarist David Roads and bassist Justin Street. At the gig tonight, we’ll see the same wild-eyed, slightly dangerous look in all their eyes.
Sound-check done, guitar removed, Joel looks a little dazed and cheerfully divulges the pain of his favourite on-stage party trick: opening cans of beer with his head. He used to use his hand, but one night his wrist split open so he thought “Fuck it, I’ll just use my head.” Well, naturally…
“I don’t know what’s in the aluminium of those things but they fucking hurt,” he grimaces of the Carling cans he’s used on recent dates. “Takes a lot of bashing to make them burst. Two months of that fucks your head up.”
Their Godzilla brand of three-chord fun – and matching stage antics – has paid dividends. Latest album Breakin’ Outta Hell builds on a seismic collection of no-bullshit rock’n’roll. They’re routinely picked to support the likes of Iron Maiden, the Rolling Stones and Motörhead. Lemmy was a big supporter, guesting in their video for fan favourite Runnin’ Wild, for the price of a couple of bottles of Jack Daniels and some crisps. And a limo to pick him up, into which he promptly invited the young Airbourne to join him.
“We were cheersing Jacks with Lemmy for about two hours, listening to ZZ Top,” Joel grins, “and he told us so many stories about Hawkwind and Girlschool and Motörhead. And he gave us advice, he air-guitared to Billy Gibbons…”
Theirs is an audacity that can feel rather absent among younger rock bands, in a world heavily policed by health and safety and, more perniciously, social media – holding everyone to account for every indiscretion. When I ask if they feel restricted as a rock’n’roll band in this era, however, their response is simple – mildly puzzled, even. It’s almost how you’d imagine Angus Young or Bon Scott responding if they were suddenly placed, as young men, in 2016.
“We are who we are, we’re not dicks to people, we’re just happy to be here,” Joel says simply. “That’s really it. With social media, the way we look at it is, ‘Why spend your life looking down when you could be out’? Yes, it is a tool that we use, but we’re not tied to it; we’re out living.”
“The thing is we really don’t take what we do for granted,” Ryan adds. “To be a rock band in the 21st century, sitting here doing what we’re doing, is a pretty hard road to get to. So you do appreciate it a lot.”
So you don’t feel that you can’t live as ‘hard’ as you’d like?
“No one’s got needles hanging out of their arms or anything, but we love a good time,” Joel says. “And we’re always surrounded by booze. We’ve got a full keg machine, there’s always whiskeys and vodkas and fuckin’ wine an’ shit.” He grins, “There’s a lot of, um, temptation!”
Are there Mrs Airbournes back home, who support all your endeavours?
“I’ve got a missus, she supports it,” Joel nods. “She’s great. She’ll come over if we have a break on tour.”
“I’m pleasantly single,” smiles Ryan smugly, “which makes it a lot easier!”
Over in Katy’s and queuing outside, Classic Rock’s snapper and I find fans starting to gather. It’s 5pm on a Wednesday, but could easily be a Saturday. Whitesnake blasts out of the speakers. Drink flows into a happy sea of Airbourne, Motörhead, Ghost and Black Label Society T-shirts. Yet for all the goodwill there’s an ever-present whisper of the city’s turbulent history, and of the prevailing tensions towards the outskirts. “If you went there with that accent, you’d be fucked,” local rock fan Kevin tells me, apologetically but matter-of-factly, before diving into an enthused natter about Rainbow. Indeed everyone seems far more intent on having a good time and getting psyched for the show.
It could have easily never happened. Airbourne come from one of Australia’s least rock’n’roll corners, the Victorian country town of Warrnambool. Population: 29,000 or so. Rock heritage: nil. Without a local scene to look up to, it was their uncle’s classic rock records – and books on touring in the school library – that opened a world of AC/DCs, Rose Tattoos and Led Zeppelins to the O’Keeffe brothers. At home, meanwhile, their father enjoyed traditional Australian and Irish music.
“We’d be sleeping under the table whilst 20 blokes would be sitting around drinking Guinness and playing things,” Ryan remembers. “And then we just had a passion for music at a very young age, and they supported it 100%. The neighbours complained, but that’s just the way it was.”
Gigs in back-of-beyond haunts for 30 odd punters proved a toughening education. “From day one we felt we had to convert people,” Ryan nods.
“Australia’s a tough country,” Joel muses. “It’s a tough way to play rock’n’roll. It teaches you that when a crowd likes you its a really special thing.”
They needn’t worry about the crowd tonight – a relatively blokey but mixed bag of old timers and fired-up youths. The red lights go down, a couple of pints fly into the air and before we can say ‘G’day!’ the band have set off with Ready To Rock, followed swiftly by a glorious Too Much Too Young Too Fast. For all the whinging that their music’s flagrantly derivative nature could incite, the idea of bemoaning songs that sound like revitalised Highway To Hell-era AC/DC seems idiotic. Original or not (ie not) they do it extremely well.
“How about some free BEER?!” Joel (perennially topless for live shows) cries after Chewing The Fat, as the packed room swells into a ferocious, but very smiley, mosh pit. His broad Aussie command of the audience is part Crocodile Dundee, part Bon Scott. As is his general fearless abandon; he rides a roadie’s shoulders to the nearest bar, pulls a pint and heads back to the stage, downing it with relish.
“I fucking love Belfast!” he cries after a riotous Ain’t No Way But The Hard Way. He then proceeds to offer beer to punters who get up on their fellow rockers’ shoulders. People quickly get the hang of this and Joel tosses open cans accordingly. Most of the beer ends up all over the shoulder-surfers, but they look deliriously happy. Two fans in wheelchairs cheer at the back. Seeing their predicament, the crowd make a path for them to come to the front. The band spot this and Joel jumps down to the barrier to give the pair a personal solo.
“Every single show we do, we treat it like our last,” Joel says seriously. “We’ve never been one of those groups that has a huddle or anything like that. We just go on and play. We’re very working class in that mentality. We’re here to give you everything we’ve got.”
As the set progresses, more cans are destroyed, sending lavish sprays of beer onto photographers eagerly snapping away. Cheap Wine And Cheaper Women is naturally a cue for wine, and Joel luxuriantly swigs from a bottle of red before passing it to the crowd. Because clearly, y’know, it’s all about the crowd; and the all-round team spirit of a gig like this. For Joel it’s what was great about his heroes.
“Lemmy was so gracious to his fans, a gentleman to his road crew, to his band…,” Joel says. “That is rock’n’roll. When you come to the show, as a fan or a member of the crew or the band onstage, we’re all here for one reason.”
So is it possible for there to be Lemmys, Keith Richards etc today? Are you the guys to carry that forward?
“Well, we know we’re not gonna change,” Joel says. “Those guys lived their lives the same way since they were sixteen, pretty much. More Lemmys today? I don’t know. I don’t know what the world holds for anything. All I know is that we’re going to keep doing what we do.”
There’s something of the Young brothers in their singular devotion to the cause. Totally devoid of politics but full of rousing weekend warrior sentiment – the metal-crunching Breakin’ Outta Hell is basically an end-of-the-week party song – they’re a shot of straight-ahead escapism for anxious times.
“Especially in tough times, if turning to us and having a beer makes your day better, we’re doing our job,” Ryan nods.
The set closes with an irresistible, full-throttle pairing of Live It Up and Runnin’ Wild – and a final screamed message from Joel, whose eyes are practically popping out of his skull as smoke fills the stage. It’s like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, sponsored by Marshall.
“As long as you are aliiiive! And as long as we are aliiiiive! Rock and roll will never ever die!”
Say what you like about originality, or subtlety, or lack of either – that was fucking great.
Backstage afterwards, the dressing room is full of black denim, bare torsos and Guinness. Outside on the street, fans have spilled out of the Limelight, breathless and a bit ecstatic, singing Airbourne refrains.
“That was good!” Joel gasps breathily, towel draped round his neck, sinking into the leather sofa beside me. “The immediate feeling is just like, ‘Fuck!’ You just feel really high… I don’t know, the crowds are so into it and they just keep pushing you and pushing you harder and harder, and you finally come offstage and you’re like, ‘I wanna go back!’ It’s such a good feeling.”
“I imagine how a football player or a rugby player feels after a match,” Ryan sits cross-legged on the floor next to us. “It’s like ‘Did we do well? How can we improve?’”
“We never come off thinking, ‘We’re the shit’,” Joel agrees. “We’re a band of brothers. We treat it like trench warfare. If somebody doesn’t hold the line you’re gonna have to run, so you’ve gotta have each other’s backs.”
So where does all that confidence come from? There’s clearly nothing remotely shy and retiring about your show…
“I think it’s just the energy of the crowd and the music we’re playing. It just pushes you that way,” says Joel.
He pauses thoughtfully, some of that stage mania still bubbling away: “I don’t know what goes off in a murderer’s head when he goes and stabs people. There’s those murderers you hear about and he’s got a family and kids and goes killing people on the weekends, until they catch him! What goes off in his head? I’m not sure what happens, but a switch flicks [snaps fingers] and it’s the same when you put your guitar on. You turn into this other thing.”