Almanac Music: Midnight Oil in 2021

 

 Tony Lewis [Source: indaily.com.au]

 

 

Midnight Oil.  Womadelaide. March 6, 2021.

 

 

‘I see a lot of grey’ was the wife’s assessment of the growing crowd.  Hair that is.  I guess that when you release your first album in 1978 and sing about important social issues a lot of your diehard fans will have the odd grey hair.  I have a lot of grey myself and I didn’t learn of the band’s existence until I heard their Species Deceases EP during a ride home from school in early 1986.  It has just gone 30 years since I first saw Midnight Oil live at Memorial Drive in November 1990; it was the Blue Sky Mining tour and the band was already seven albums and two EPs deep.  A few months earlier they had made headlines worldwide when they set up outside the Exxon building in New York City and played a brief protest gig to the lunchtime crowd on 6th Avenue.  This was a band at the top of their game.  The Midnight Oil I witnessed in November 1990 was intense and ferocious.

 

 

The Midnight Oil I witnessed at Womadelaide in March 2021 was no less intense than the one I saw 30 years ago.  Ok, Peter Garrett’s dancing may not be as frenzied as it was in 1990, but that is understandable.  Like an old pro he knows how to work with what he has.  You get the sense that he still feels the music through every fibre of his body, but he knows that he has to keep a tighter grip on it these days.  His message still packs a punch.

 

 

The tag team guitars of Martin Rotsey and Jim Moginie have not changed at all, Moginie even benefiting from the wider array of pedals and effects that are at his disposal in 2021.

 

 

Bass player Adam Ventoura stepped in for the recently departed Bones Hillman (RIP) and did the job required of him.  I guess that if you don’t really notice the bass player, he has done his job.  You feel their playing in the right places and the song goes on.  The band played fitting tribute to Bones during the show’s encore.  It was not until Hillman’s passing that I learned he was previously a member of The Swingers, of Counting the Beat fame…certainly at the opposite end of the spectrum to Midnight Oil.  When required, the band drew on a pair of female First Nations artists to provide the backing vocals that would normally fall to their late bass player.

 

 

Rob Hirst.  I love watching him play.  He hits the drums as if they have wronged him in some way.  He is not hidden behind a pile of cymbals and toms, so you get to see him at work all night.  He plays every beat at 110% yet still had enough in the tank for his Power and the Passion solo in the main set finale.

 

 

From the opening riff of Read about it through to The Dead Heart to close the show the band didn’t let up.  Most of what Garrett sang about in the ’80s and early ’90s is still as relevant today.

 

 

Corporate greed.

Disenchantment with government.

US power and interference.

The evils of mass media.

Consumerism.

The perils of nuclear weapons.

The environment.

Aboriginal rights.

Big mining.

 

 

Throw social media and Trump into the mix, and a pile of songs written in the era of Fraser/Hawke and Reagan still ring true today.  Sad isn’t it?  Are we just witnessing a glacial rate of change, or is it an unwillingness to change?  Little of what Garrett sang about all those years ago is in better shape now than it was then.  Do we really have the short memories he sings of?

 

 

I myself feel somewhat conflicted.  I can still sing all the words to the songs (and I did), but from the low-level bank employee of 1990 I have since had a stint in the armed forces, then became an accountant, worked for a massive global bank for a while, then evolved into a superannuation expert in a (small) city-fringe office.  Hardly embracing the ideals of Garrett and Co.!

 

 

Maybe my contribution to the cause is fathering a politically engaged, Greens supporting, democratic-socialist university student (studying politics and history).  With each generation we do a little better.  He has the courage (and the opportunity?) to go where I could not.

 

 

I must give a shout out to support act Vicka and Linda Bull.  This was the first time I had seen the sisters perform sans-Paul Kelly or The Black Sorrows and they were spot on.  The highlight for mine was the closing Bridge over Troubled Water dedicated to their late friend, Michael Gudinski.  There was a sharp intake of breath on my part when the unmistakable piano intro rang out; this can be a tough song to nail at the best of times, even more so in an emotional tribute to a friend.  Well, the sisters and their band took on that challenge and they smashed it out of the park.  A tip of the cap to their piano player, whose play captured all the feeling and emotion of the song.  A well-deserved standing ovation saw them off.

 

 

 

 

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About

Dour opener and close-checking fullback. Peaked early.

Comments

  1. Kevin Densley says

    Good stuff, Greg. Great to hear your opinion that the Oils are still “on song’ live. I remember seeing them at least a couple of times circa 1980/81/82 performing at Deakin Uni’s O Week, in Geelong, and they were fantastic.

  2. Thanks for the review, Greg.

    I saw the Oils three times on their Great Circle Tour only a few short years ago.
    They still rock.

    RIP Bones

  3. Thanks gents.

    It was billed as a ‘Greatest Hits’ show but there was no real hint of nostalgia apart from one point where they referenced the various local venues they had played over the years. Even that was a touch political as the “scungy-looking pub” from the early days is owned by a prominent Liberal-backing family and the Thebarton Theatre (until recently) was at risk of destruction at the hands of our Liberal government and their road upgrade.

    The band was flawless (Garrett did mix up a verse in an early number but it was seamless) and the message was about looking forward and not back.

  4. Excellent summary of the night Greg, I was there and thought along a similar theme to you – lots of rusted on Oils fans there, just like the band we still see issues of 30+ years unresolved. They could rewrite “Short Memory” and replace the content with current maladies as well as those within the existing song, history repeats itself…..Rob Hirst still maintains that fire and energy, the others are a little more contained these days – just like us fans! But the message is still strong & relevant. Vika & Linda Bull were good, I enjoyed their banter with the crowd. The song about their Grandad picking them up from school fully kitted out in Tongan attire was a ripper but you are right, Bridge Over Troubled Waters as their tribute to Michael Gudinski was knocked out of the ball park. The Oils keep me attuned to my younger years and what they have done is maintained a social conscience for decades that is still relevant.

  5. Cheers Jags. Good assessment.

    You are right about Vika and Linda Bull. They were entertaining and really connected with the crowd through their banter. Listening to their self-deprecating humour and stories was a good way to get settled in ahead of the Oils.

  6. Kevin Densley says

    Always good, Greg, to compare a band when they are young, hungry and full of energy, so to speak, to when they are much older, very established and (perhaps) pacing themselves a bit more.

  7. Yes Kevin, I have seen some do it well and some do it poorly. The one’s that did it well seemed to understand that you can’t just manufacture that energy and hunger of the early days, and knew how to pace themselves at the right times. The one’s that did it poorly came across as nostalgia acts.

    ‘Singing for your supper’ so to speak, would have to create a sense of hunger and urgency that can’t be replicated once you are comfortable and have sold a pile of albums.

  8. John Butler says

    Greg, you’re talking my language here.

    I’m old enough to go back to the early 80’s, when they were touring Place Without A Postcard. The Oils were the band I really cut my gig-going teeth on. Ferocious is an excellent word to describe them back then. I still regard them as in the top few live bands I’ve ever seen.

    Interestingly, I haven’t felt a strong urge to catch them in recent times. As KD alludes, some of that may be a slight reticence about how much fire they still have in the belly.

    But more honestly, that reticence is probably about how much fire I have in my belly. Though I still only need to put on Place Without A Postcard, Species Deceases or the Scream In Blue live album, and it can still fire up the adrenaline. Maybe I’m not a completely lost cause yet? :)

    Cheers

  9. Cheers John.

    I get where you are coming from, there have been a couple of 70’s-80’s bands touring in recent years, bands of which I was a massive fan as a younger bloke, but I didn’t even give their advertised gigs a second thought. You just know when they are past it. Even worse when they are trying to convince you (and themselves?) that they are still as good as (or better than) ever.

    The Oils were the first band I saw live and they set a pretty high bar for the rest to follow.
    When I first heard Species Deceases as a young lad it was like a sharp slap in the face!
    Another blast from the past! I had the Scream in Blue live album on cassette that was a constant fixture in my car’s tape deck.

  10. John Butler says

    Greg, I still have SIB on cassette. And I still have a tape deck.

    Don’t we sound like a perfect pair of middle-aged nostalgists. :)

  11. Liam Hauser says

    My 4 favourite Midnight Oil albums (in order) are Earth and Sun and Moon, Blue Sky Mining, Diesel and Dust, and 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1. I haven’t paid attention to any of their music released since 1998, nor their stuff from 1977 to 1981. It’s just that I’m not a diehard who must have a copy of all of their albums. With James Reyne’s solo work, he had some fine stuff in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but then I lost interest from the late 1990s onward (I saw him in concert from 2002 to 2005 and in 2019 though, and he was still in fine fettle). Yet with ELO it’s a different matter. I still keep track of what is now Jeff Lynne’s ELO. Even in his early 70s, Jeff still has more than just a touch of genius about him.
    When discussing whether or not certain bands and singers have still “got it”, two others that cross my mind are The Who, and Crosby Stills and Nash (and Young). The latter’s early works in 1969 and 1970 had a lot of popularity, while they had some success in the 1970s and early 1980s as well. But their music from 1988 onwards was not popular at all. Fans obviously didn’t like the way they changed direction. I quite like their 1990 album Live it up (which was the first CSN album I knew, strangely enough, and it sounded totally unlike their early albums), but it was a huge flop from a commercial perspective.
    As for The Who, let’s not forget the iconic line “I hope I die before I get old” from their 1965 megahit My Generation. The Who had a lot of great stuff from 1965 until they disbanded in 1981, but then they reformed with just the two remaining members in the 2000s. I can’t help but wonder if Townshend’s statement from 40-odd years earlier had come back to bite him. I was surprised at how well the 2006 album Endless Wire was received from some fans. To me, and some others, the two-person band sounded old, tired and stale. No fire in the belly anymore.

  12. I have 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 as my favourite album and Species Deceases as my favourite recording of theirs (and one of my favourites overall). The Scream in Blue live album also got a fair workout a few years back. I think it is great that people can have different favourites from different eras for different reasons..

    Paul Kelly is another one that still stands up for mine. We have seen him a number of times over the years with different bands and different concepts and he has never disappointed us. He is earnest in his playing and you believe him (well I do).

    Joe Camilleri also springs to mind. I saw him in the early 90’s with the Black Sorrows and the Bull sisters, and it was a great show. I saw him with the Black Sorrows in a small/intimate gig in the December pre-Covid and he put on a cracking show. I saw him in the same venue last year between lockdowns, when it was just him and a mate on their guitars (and some sax) and he put on a show that while scaled down, was no less passionate and rousing. I would happily see him again in any form.

    The Who is a fine example. For me they died with Keith Moon. They were certainly dead and buried once John Entwhistle died. Pete Townsend may have been a driving force in terms of their direction, but he was only one part of a much bigger picture. I read an interview recently where he was talking about recording new songs with The Who. Come on Pete! Surely not!

    I feel the same about Deep Purple. I loved the work of the MkII version. I gave their latest album a listen after reading another interview with them. I wish I hadn’t. I don’t need to see them touring again.

    I like to pick and choose a bit more these days. I can’t give too many bands the unwavering allegiance that I used to. Plus I like to explore stuff I may have missed the first time around when my thinking was a lot narrower than today.

  13. Writing about unwavering allegiance reminded me of another Oils-related anecdote.

    It would have been a school bus ride home in early 1986 and a couple of year 12’s on the back seat were debating the merits of The Angels vs Midnight Oil. The farmer (school prefect/star footballer) was firmly in The Angels camp and the ‘townie’ (and roughie) was the Midnight Oil fan. I can’t remember much of the argument, but I can clearly recall the farmer’s closing argument that “Doc Neeson could beat the sh*t out of Peter Garrett!”. It was one of the most funny/stupid/baffling/redundant points I have ever heard anyone make in a discussion about music. Thankfully (for him) his stop was early on the route.

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