By BRUCE DENNILL
Midnight Oil / The Great Circle 2017 World Tour / Marks Park, Emmarentia, Johannesburg
Australian rock band Midnight Oil started out in 1972 and took 15 years to become overnight sensations with worldwide hit Beds Are Burning, still belted out gleefully by uninformed listeners on account of its lasting catchiness rather than because of its subject matter – the need to return misappropriated land to a group of Australian aboriginals. That song went to number one in South Africa in 1987 and remains the outfit’s best-known track in this country.
The folly of considering this one tune either the essence or the zenith of their output was made crystal clear by the band’s one-off Johannesburg show on 29 July, in which probably 85% of their set inspired enthusiastic if slightly wonky singalongs. Their supposed status as a “heritage band” – singer Peter Garrett is 64, and his cohorts are all of similar vintage – was also wholly rubbished, with all their trademark live tics (Garrett’s stiff-legged, hands-splayed dance style; drummer Rob Hirst’s many drum kit add-ons and more) as fresh, somehow, as they were three decades ago.
The concert was set up as a sort of mini festival, with Graeme Watkins Project, Freshlyground and Prime Circle all given significant stage time before the headliners and – in bright winter sunshine – delivering excellent sets, with notably (particularly for an outdoor set-up) clear sound. This arrangement was infinitely preferable to the multi-step process – leave three hours early to avoid parking kilometres away; queuing four separate times at security barriers and all the rest – usually involved in attending a large outdoor concert – and the positive, relaxed mindset such a chilled day out engendered allowed Midnight Oil to arrive on stage to a rapturous welcome. Both band and audience would have been encouraged during the introduction to the first song, The Dead Heart, in which the crowd started singing the song’s hook before the full band had even joined Hirst as he laid down the familiar rhythm. More than 20 years after their last appearance in South Africa, such confirmation of the affection of their fans would likely have given the band a buzz that helped maintain the unflagging energy displayed during their two-hour show.
The bulk of the setlist was drawn from the band’s lengthy list of hits rather than, as is often the case, newer or lesser-known material that is perhaps more fun for them to play but less enjoyable for the greater proportion of the crowd to listen to. That said, tunes such as Too Much Sunshine (from Capricornia, the last album the band released before breaking up in 2002, when Garrett left to pursue a career in politics) were easy to enjoy, particularly after the imposing singer – six foot four, bald, and possessed of a piercing stare – ensured that the song’s lyrical focus, climate change, and the “idiot leaders” who continue to to ignore it, was paid attention to.
But the real thrill for fans of any level of devotion would have come from the appearance of beloved anthem after anthem – from Truganini and Blue Sky Mine to King Of The Mountain and Dreamworld – all performed with a mixture of passion and wonderful musicianship, with multi-instrumentalist Jim Moginie and drummer Hirst particularly accomplished.
It’s uncertain how long the band’s second wind will last – they reformed last year and have spent most of 2017 on the road – but their Johannesburg performance revealed a collective with comfortable confidence to spare, able to connect with fans old and new, and with a back catalogue that has not aged in the slightest. In terms of their advocacy for their various causes, the continued clout of their lyrics is perhaps unfortunate (in that real change or the political will to effect it is still out of reach in so many areas). But their songwriting prowess was confirmed and remains – unlike some of the individuals their ire is directed at – unimpeachable.