Magnificent show signals that it's Oil over
Monday, 3 October 2022
Shona Ross photos
Midnight Oil are Australian icons. People are often divided about where the split in their canon lives… that point where they stopped being a pub rock staple and moved into political activists. People of a particular political persuasion love them; they worship the ground they walk on, while their detractors feel equally aggrieved by their preaching. While tonight was one for the true believers, it also had something for everyone.
The Hordern has been the scene of Sydney’s greatest rock shows. This was one of them. It was the end of an era, probably where the last doors of an eight-tonne touring truck slammed closed on the glory days of Aussie pub rock. By the looks of the crowd of aged and gnarled surfers, elderly vets of rock days gone by, and the second and third generations of Oils fans, they couldn’t have kept up the pace of a five-night-a-week gigging schedule, anyway.
Wandering past the venue on our way to the Captain Cook Hotel pre-gig, the faithful were assembling en masse nearly three hours before kick-off. Hordes of worn T-shirts, black with the familiar yellow cover of their second album, “Head Injuries” adorned every second or third punter… as we neared the end of the Hordern and opened door gave us a glimpse of the Oils sound checking their 2020 staple “Gadigal Land” … and it sounded good. It augured well for the night ahead.
After a pitstop for refreshments, we headed back to the Entertainment Quarter, joining the queue to enter and get ready for the show. The sell-out crowd was swelling to capacity and many of Sydney’s rock cognoscenti were there for their last serving of the Oils. As we enter the Hordern, which I am told reliably holds 5,900 these days, the PA system was idling along with predictable tracks like Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty” and the Warumpi Band classic, “Black Fella, White Fella”. The gigantic stage was sparse, adorned only with Rob Hirst’s water tank and the band’s backline. The familiar yellow Oils hand icon was projected onto a red and black cyclorama.
Then, without too much fanfare, they were on.
It wasn’t as much an explosion, but an easing into "Place Without a Postcard" song “Lucky Country”, as if the band were pacing themselves, but as many of the band members are just this side of 70, it wasn’t unexpected.
Halfway through “Used and Abused”, from the band’s debut platter, singer Peter Garrett stopped the show to berate someone who had been anti-social in the crowd. “Not tonight, not at the last gig,” he says… “you can go to the left side or the right side, but if you don’t get out of there, I’ll have you thrown out.”. The parochial crowd roared their approval and the band roared back into gear.
From there the band worked their way through their extensive catalogue of both hits and deeply obscure album tracks. Garrett quipped that touring bassist, Adam Ventoura, had to learn 94 songs for this tour… and his work from where I stood was flawless.
Every album and EP were represented in the setlist, which was at times heavy on their newer material, but purists, like the elderly surfer dude who stood next to us dancing Garrett-style for the entire gig knew every word. And I swear when they walked off, he had a tear in his eye.
The core band of Garrett, Jim Moginie, Martin Rotsey and Rob Hirst were, and always have been, exceptional in the live space. Great rock’n’roll bands need great guitar sounds and tonight was no exception… Rotsey’s vintage Strat sound was a sharp as a razor blade, while Moginie constantly swapped out his Gretschs to a white Les Paul Custom that always signalled there was a hard rocking vintage nugget on the way.
Moginie’s gift to the band was always his tonal additions, which some of his detractors call circus noises, but tonight his use of tone and texture covered over 40 years of Oils heritage. Whilst I loved his use of the tremolo pedal, I did get distracted by his use of a Whammy pedal which brought a bit of Tom Morello into the mix. It wasn’t a showstopper.
The band, as usual, was powered by the unstoppable Rob Hirst. Sure, he isn’t quite as explosive as he was 45 years ago, but so what? His flawless drumming delivered as he always has. Coupled with his backing vocals, Hirst is the point of difference between the Oils and many of their peers. His sharp and pointed lyrics have always helped steer this ship in the direction they wanted to go. He was just exceptional and to be able to drum like that for three- and three-quarter hours is completely mind-blowing.
The band were augmented by two backing vocalists, Leah Flanagan and Liz Stringer, the latter who doubled on occasional acoustic guitar as well as a three-piece horn section. Dan Sultan also guested on “Gadigal Land”. This gave them the versatility to take on their entire catalogue, along with the addition of some sequences and a bit of drum machine. The one concession was a short breakdown where Hirst came to the front of the stage during a mini acoustic breather set.
The marathon set of just under four hours did have some surprising omissions. "Back on the Borderline", "Short Memories" and even their debut single, "Run By Night" failed to make the cut, but you can’t do them all, no matter how long you play for. The production was impeccable. As an occasional Oils attendee since 1979, the standard of the show was top drawer. Lighting, stage, sound design was the top of the class, as it has generally been since their very early days.
As the band pantomime-walked off the stage for the first of three encores, you got the feeling that the crowd’s emotions were spilling over. The first encore had five songs, while three more tracks were delivered after being brought back a second time.
The full backdrop was given over to a tribute to departed bass player, Bones Hillman, before the band came on one more time to give us a final version of Blue-Sky Mining’s “Forgotten Years”.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, The Oils have been a constant in the Australian music scene for five decades. Tonight, was the opportunity for them to share the love with the audience that has grown up, gotten married, stoned or drunk or danced like some demented electrocuted surfer along with them.
They weren’t the same dangerous rock band I first saw at the Hurstville Civic Centre all those years ago, but gee, they were good. This gig will be one of those in years to come, like Birdman at the Paddington Town Hall or The Oxford Funhouse, that if everyone who said they were there had actually attended, they couldn’t find a room big enough to hold them all.
Tonight, the Oils killed it, one last time. And it was a pleasure to be there.