“We spent more time on this setlist than most people did thinking about how to vote on Brexit,” says Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett towards the beginning of the band’s first London show in 20 years. Initially it seems like a throwaway joke from the former government minister and lifelong activist. But he’s clearly not kidding. Like crafting the perfect mixtape, they’ve picked the right songs in the right sequence for the biggest impact.
Blistering set opener Redneck Wonderland easily fulfils its purpose, getting the punters up and and out of their seats within the first 15 seconds. Originally recorded “just around the corner”, an impassioned Read About It and its opening lines of “the rich getting richer, the poor get the picture” are an instant reminder that this band’s songs are as physical as they are emotional and intellectual.
The sunny and instantly hummable Golden Age, from the Australians’ criminally overlooked final album Capricornia, introduces their environmental concerns while highlighting that there’s a real depth to their catalogue. The positively punky No Reaction, which reaches all the way back to 1978’s Head Injuries, is an emphatic call to arms. The musically and lyrically complex Truganini takes aim at British colonialism. And that’s just the first five songs.
As their set barrels along, the band deliver everything you’d expect: astute political and social commentary to complement the slogan on Garrett’s T-shirt (“to sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men”), drummer Rob Hirst pounding on an oil drum, Garrett breaking out his signature dance moves (flailing his limbs with wild abandon), and one cracking tune after another.
But what’s surprising is the voracity with which they do so. For two breathless hours, these men in their 60s seem just as invigorated as they were on their seminal live album Oils On The Water, recorded back in 1985. Add 30 years of experience and they actually sound better than ever before.
Guitarist Jim Moginie effortlessly slips into the elaborate keyboard solo of Short Memory, and without his deft piano playing the minimalist My Country would be nothing more than haunting singing. Bones Hillman’s backing vocals are as powerful as his bass playing is understated. Hirst, whose harmonies are just as important, makes singing while drumming look like child’s play as he belts out When The Generals Talk. And the band as a whole, rounded out by guitarist Martin Rotsey and multi-instrumentalist touring member Jack Howard of Hunters & Collectors, have no trouble transforming Kosciusko from quiet acoustic strum to full-blown rocker in an instant.
Obviously as thrilled as the audience to be performing live again after two decades (and well, uhm, oiled after months back on the road), the group are clearly making up for lost time. With a set that steadily builds momentum, The Oils are simply unstoppable by the time they follow a raucous Power and the Passion with an unparalleled run of seven songs from their glory days as international superstars.
A driving rendition of The Dead Heart, greeted by the audience singing its opening bars en masse, makes way for a collectively chanted Beds Are Burning, played even faster than the version I fell in love with as a 12-year-old in 1988. Blue Sky Mine, complete with that Garrett harmonica solo, is greeted almost as enthusiastically, before Dreamworld, from 1987’s all-conquering Diesel and Dust album, euphorically wraps up the main set.
Warakurna, which namechecks Buckingham Palace in assessing the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people, starts the encore on a moody, political note, before the one-two punch of King of the Mountain and Forgotten Years (both from 1991’s Blue Sky Mining LP) knock out the night.
Midnight Oil return to Hammersmith Apollo on 23 July 2017.
Live review of Midnight Oil @ Hammersmith Apollo by Nils van der Linden on 4th July 2017. Photography by John Hayhurst.