As reunions go, Midnight Oil’s first world tour in 15 years is one that we actually need.
First, the obvious: The Australian band’s rabble-rousing politics have become more necessary as each year passes. Few bands of the ‘80s or ‘90s carried the Clash’s torch of ideology and social justice with such unwavering conviction. (Frontman Peter Garrett even spent recent years serving in the Australian Labor Party and as Minister for the Environment, Heritage, and the Arts.) But less obvious, and equally important: Midnight Oil — active from the mid-‘70s to the early ’00s with the same classic lineup (briefly reforming for charity gigs in 2005 and 2009) — remain a powerhouse live act, one that transcends sheer nostalgia, and we need more powerhouse acts in our lives.
On Thursday (May 11), the Oils brought their sold-out North American tour to the House of Blues in Boston, and got right down to business. Opening with the feverish “King of the Mountain” from 1990’s Blue Sky Mining, the band set the collective pulse rate of the venue high and vowed to keep it there for the next two hours.
As political as the Oils are known to be — Garrett referred to their last Boston show in 2002, when he drew the ire of some fans by denouncing the policies of another equally polarizing sitting Republican president — the show at the House of Blues was more about togetherness, fidelity, and the communal experience of live music as a salve. This show was, as Garrett announced between songs, “a reminder that music has a therapeutic power — a chant that, whether you’re a Tibetan monk or a school teacher, helps you get through the day.” That big-picture inclusiveness was driven home by a giant image of planet Earth that loomed behind the band.
Garrett is the perfect frontman to lead a sold-out crowd to that promised land of sonic transcendence. Over six feet tall, bald, stalking the stage with upper-body spams and jabs, he’s part conductor, part social evangelist. He directed his gyrations and wordless commands at the band and audience in equal doses, keeping the crowd engaged, in motion, and rallied. The rest of the band are expert players without the conceit of ego or flash — a pragmatic machine hitting the highs conjured by Garrett’s unrelenting hands. Martin Rotsey and Jim Moginie offered up a dual-guitar attack of complementary jangling, ringing, and strumming, working their disparity to the max with the holy-shit chords that bust through the Afrobeat shuffle in “Truganini.” Bassist Bones Hillman, an imposing Paul Simonon type, and hard-hitting drummer Rob Hirst stayed engaged throughout with copious harmonies.
That’s not to say that the night was without fist-pumping social calls-to-action. The Oils dug back into songs from 1982’s 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 for anthems about our collective lack of learning from past atrocities (“Short Memory”) and Costello-esque critiques of the influence of American military (“US Forces”). “My Country,” from 1993’s career highlight Earth and Sun and Moon, delivered its emotional juxtaposition of humanity and nationalism in the midst of a brief acoustic set that allowed Hirst a slight reprieve from a workout behind the drum kit. “Beds Are Burning,” the group’s enduring hit from 1987’s Diesel and Dust, was deliriously-good protest music couched in indelible melody and Peter Gunn propulsion. You know, it’s got a good message, and you can dance to it.
The Oils hit fever pitch with the last five songs of their set, allowing an eruptive “Power and the Passion” to open the floodgates to “The Dead Heart,” “Blue Sky Mine,” “Beds Are Burning,” and “Forgotten Years.” It was the sound of a great band getting better right in front of you, energized by an audience eager for release. The crowd contributed hair-raising refrains to “The Dead Heart” before the band even got around to it. The song, about the separation of Aboriginal children from their families, includes lyrics so malleable you could apply them to the shared experience of the people in the room that night: “We carry in our hearts the true country/And that cannot be stolen.”
The night’s encore included “Sometimes,” a proper resistance tune that planted hope in the ears of the listeners. “Sometimes you’re beaten to the call/Sometimes you’re taken to the wall/But you don’t give in” is cat-hanging-on-a-tree-limb poster fodder for some, but for the Oils it’s a genuine, contagious mantra to bring people together and keep them moving towards what is good and just — on a dance floor, in the minds of the masses, out there somewhere.
Photos by Zeth Lundy; follow him on Twitter @zethlundy.