It didn't sink in at first with Darren Caperna that he was actually auditioning with AC/DC. As the singer of Dallas-based AC/DC tribute band Back in Black, he knew their songs inside and out. But he didn't feel the full weight of what was happening when he received a call from the band’s tour manager, nor on the plane ride to Atlanta, nor when he spoke with AC/DC’s manager in the hotel before the audition.
It sunk in during Caperna's audition, in the middle of "Shot Down in Flames." When late singer Bon Scott tells guitarist Angus Young, "Angus, shoot me," Caperna turned to deliver the line and there, right in front of him, was the real Angus Young.
“He comes over and starts getting into it, and I’m like, ‘Holy crap, this is really happening,” says Caperna, who was flown in to audition with the band in March after their longtime singer, Brian Johnson, was forced to leave the tour. “That’s when I started looking around and noticed [bassist] Cliff Williams and [guitarist] Stevie Young.”
Caperna's rock star fantasy ultimately came up short, as he was bested by no less of a rock star than Axl Rose. But simply getting the audition was a dream come true: For the past 16 years, the 47-year-old Caperna has been channeling both Scott and Johnson onstage in the band he co-founded with guitarist Mike Mroz.
He’s been imitating AC/DC since he was kid standing in front of the bathroom mirror with a hairbrush in hand. “AC/DC’s music was so straightforward, a constant pounding, and you just couldn’t help but bang your head and move with it,” he says. “They never tried to be fancy. It was just plug in the amp, no crazy drum solos, just straight forward in your face rock ‘n’ roll.”
Caperna’s adventure began when Back in Black drummer Ken "Da Crusha" Schiumo received an email from AC/DC’s people on Back in Black’s Facebook page. Lead singer Johnson, who’s 68, had to drop out of the tour or risk losing his hearing, according to news reports, and they needed a singer to finish out the band’s remaining 10 dates on the tour, which visited Dallas in February.
“They wanted to know if Darren would be interested in auditioning, and we were like, ‘Highway to hell yes he’d be interested,'” recalls Mroz, whom Schiumo frantically contacted after getting the message. They in turn called Caperna, who recalled screaming like TV’s Bobby Hill from King of the Hill. They wanted to share the news with their family, friends and social media followers. But they were told not to tell anyone about the audition.
“I’m there during the rehearsal [with AC/DC],” Caperna recalls, "and my friend texts me and says, ‘I saw Brian Johnson is out of the band. Why don’t you rehearse for them? Lol.’ I wanted to respond so bad. It was hard not to respond.”
Caperna and Mroz flew to Atlanta for the audition on a Sunday, checked in at the hotel and met with the band’s manager, who gave them a rundown of the next day’s events. For Mroz, the whole experience felt surreal until they walked into the rehearsal studio and he noticed Young’s guitars.
“It hit me big time,” he says. “Then it was like, ‘This is going down.’” An even bigger shock came when the tech guys ran Caperna through soundcheck: “It was the loudest stage volume,” Mroz says. “I'm calling it AC/DC loud, and those sound waves truly move you.”
After the soundcheck, Angus Young, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, appeared, and he and the crew regaled the pair with old stories from the band. “They treated us like fellow musicians, peers, and that was such an honor,” Mroz says. “For some reason, we didn’t expect that. They wanted us to be there and wanted to get to know us. They made us feel incredibly special.”
Caperna thought that he was only singing three or four songs with the band, but he spent hours singing through classics like "Back in Black" and newer ones from 2015's Rock or Bust. They ended playing through the band’s set list from their current tour.
“Darren was just kicking ass,” Mroz says. “They [the band] were smiling a little bit. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to hear my singer with AC/DC. I was so excited, and Angus is such an incredible guitar player. I was just blown away by his playing. This guy is at a level I never new existed.”
Later that evening, Young came outside and told Mroz that Caperna did a great job. They made small talk, and Mroz mentioned what it was like to perform as him onstage. “When I started our band, I put on your schoolboy outfit and felt silly,” he told his guitar hero. “Then I could see all the girls really like it.” “I know,” Young replied. “Don’t tell anybody our secret.”
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After spending a week checking his email and sleeping with his cell phone, Caperna finally received word that AC/DC decided to go in a different direction. He claims he didn’t hold any “delusions of grandeur” when he flew out to audition. But he couldn’t keep hope completely at bay. He’d been told the band had been blown away by his performance.
“Just playing with them was worth the whole trip,” he says.
Caperna and Mroz waited to share their experience with the wider world until they saw a Rolling Stone news report that Rose, lead singer of recently "reunited" Guns N’ Roses, would be finishing out the tour with the band. And while Caperna didn’t land the ultimate dream job, AC/DC's people told him and Mroz that Back in Black is "part of the family."
“When they came to Dallas, people were asking if the band knew about us,” Mroz says. “I just wished that somebody would tell them, ‘Hey, there is a great band in Dallas that does you guys justice.’” It turns out some wishes do come true.