Peter Garrett has a lot to say. When RockShot spoke to him earlier this year, the Midnight Oil frontman shared carefully considered opinions on everything from climate crisis and the politics of greed to mobile phones at gigs and legacy acts who play the same songs, in the same order, in city after city.
In London tonight, he’s on even better form. Unfortunately that’s partly thanks to Boris Johnson. The singer, a former government minister himself, is clearly riled by the bumbling buffoon (or, to use Garrett’s parlance, “dickhead”), comparing the PM-in-waiting to King Canute, King Lear, Basil Fawlty and the comedy of Ricky Gervais. And that’s even before he gets to branding him a consistent liar with no regard for minorities.
The Brixton Academy crowd roar in support, as they do when Garrett warns of the dangers of chauvinistic nationalism, and urges “self-indulgent, narcissistic 30-, 40-, 50-somethings that they need to vote, otherwise shit happens”.
That shit includes the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people, an issue Midnight Oil have long been passionate about. Against the painted backdrop of The Statement from the Heart, which includes a call for the Australian constitution to include a “First Nation’s Voice”, Garrett declares: “We’re not speaking for Australia’s indigenous people, because they’re more than capable of speaking for themselves, but we speak with them.”
The band then launch into 1987’s Warakurna, which opens with the lines “There is enough for everyone/ In Redfern as there is in Alice/ This is not the Buckingham Palace” and reminds yet again that their songs have always been on-message; as impassioned and eloquent as the man singing them.
That’s bleedingly obvious from the off. The first words Garrett sings tonight are “We don’t serve your country, we don’t serve your king/ We don’t know your custom, don’t speak your tongue/ White man came, took everyone” as the band pound out the piledriving groove of the hugely dad-danceable The Dead Heart. And therein lies their genius: they’ve always wrapped their outspoken messages in towering choruses, unforgettable melodies, and (even on record) visceral performances.
So, during a kinetic two-hour set, it’s not unusual for the thousands in attendance to be pumping their fists and shouting along to lyrics about corporate greed and blue collar despair (a storming Blue Sky Mining complete with searing harmonica solos); colonialism, racism, and general political skullduggery (a menacing Short Memory, made even more disturbing by Jim Moginie’s brooding keyboard interlude); US foreign policy (an “unplugged” US Forces that swings and hits as hard as the original); and more colonialism (Truganini’s story of defiance and survival).
The shoutalongs are no more restrained (or in tune) during the relatively quieter moments. The stark rendition of My Country, performed acoustically with Moginie’s familiar piano melody dominating, proves once again that big songs don’t need big arrangements. And a heartfelt One Country, which ends the night on a note of beautiful introspection, almost perfectly unites audience and band in voice and emotion.
Even the less familiar songs, like the unadulterated sugar rush Too Much Sunshine; melodically joyous Kosciusko (which transforms, mid-song, from frenetic acoustic guitar strum to fully fledged rock anthem driven by drummer extraordinaire Rob Hirst); shimmering widescreen epic Stars Of Warburton; boot-quakin’, hip-shakin’ Luritja Way; beautiful, hypnotic Now Or Never Land (dedicated to the people of the climate-threatened South Pacific Islands); and slow-burning epic Jimmy Sharman’s Boxers, are (to borrow a phrase) performed with power and met with passion.
But most passion is reserved for the many bonafide classics in the Midnight Oil canon. A visceral Only The Strong is a constant ebb and flow of tension that evokes roars of approval. The rapturously received Power And The Passion is a perfect collision of spitting anger, glorious harmonies, and a flashy solo from Hirst.
The effortless King Of The Mountain and freewheeling Forgotten Years, which both showcase the sublime backing vocals of indispensable bass player Bones Hillman, turn into mass performances of football anthem proportions.
The chest-pounding, heart-stopping Sometimes, which is all about Hirst’s Duracell Bunny swing, Hillman’s bass rumble, and the duelling guitars of Moginie and the effortlessly understated Martin Rotsey, somehow makes an even stronger connection. But it’s the evergreen Beds Are Burning that, despite its immortal line “how can we dance when our earth is turning?”, inspires most cheering, singing, and, yes, dancing.
Given a slight makeover to sound more brooding and menacing, the 1987 worldwide hit remains the ultimate crowd pleaser and the perfect distillation of that Midnight Oil genius, which shows no signs of abating. As Garrett says at one point: “We’ll keep singing these songs until somebody listens.”
Live review of Midnight Oil at Brixton Academy on Thursday 13th June 2019 by Nils van der Linden. Photography by Belle Piec.