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Australian activist rockers Midnight Oil stormed the stage at Cleveland, Ohio’s House of Blues for a night of political agitation and feral rock and roll. The show marked the revitalized quintet’s next-to-last stop of a North American victory lap, following springtime shows in other US and Canadian markets. Compared to the earlier dates, the Oils seemed more reckless than ever during the opening salvo of “Redneck Wonderland” and “Read About It” – an impressive feat, given the level of ferocity displayed before The Great Circle Tour crossed the Atlantic for European shows this summer.
To the delight of fans, Midnight Oil have kept things interesting for themselves on this year’s lengthy trek by digging deeply into their catalog for unique set lists each night. After roughly four dozen shows, the band was still springing surprises and rewarding the devotees who were following the band from town to town. Casual fans of the Oils’ radio hits may not have realized the treat of hearing “Koala Sprint” from 1979’s Head Injuries album, but the diehards were buzzing about it on the sidewalk afterward.
Towering frontman Peter Garrett careened madly around the stage as if moved by the electrical charge his bandmates created, tracing circles around limber lead guitarist Martin Rotsey as he lit sparking solos for songs like “Truganini.” Bassist Bones Hillman shook the floor with the deep rumble of “Feeding Frenzy.” Versatile Jim Moginie shifted between guitars and keyboards, playing elegant and melodic piano throughout the stately “Arctic World” and slashing, atonal guitar chords during protest anthem “US Forces.” Drummer Rob Hirst led a rousing “Kosciusko” from a cocktail kit at the front of the stage.
Photo by John McColl.
A veteran of the Australian Parliament, Garrett spoke boldly about his impressions of the leadership in Washington, perhaps feeling that he should make the most of his opportunity to address a largely likeminded Oils crowd before they dispersed to parts unknown. “Somebody voted for him,” said Garrett, slinging his first barbs at Donald Trump early during the show. “It affects you here, but it affects the rest of the world, too,” he said.
The Oils’ energy never flagged, but Garrett revealed that he had icons of his own in the area of showmanship. The band had spent part of its day at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the formidable frontman described watching a film of James Brown performing his steps for Dick Clark on an early morning appearance. Rather than being shattered from grueling touring and sleep deprivation, Brown showed how he gained his reputation as the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. “How does James Brown do it?” Garrett recalled thinking.
Soon, he was back to politics. “I thought this country was the one that got democracy right,” said Garrett, before saying that if more US citizens had voted, Trump wouldn’t have been elected and subsequently increased the level of turmoil in the world. “How does he get away with it?” Garrett asked. Although invested and well informed, Garrett noted his position as an outsider. “You don’t want to hear an Australian talk about it, but you may want to hear a song that goes to the deeper meaning of it,” he said. Garrett then sat by Moginie’s piano for an understated but intense duet of “My Country.” Originally written in reaction to the rise of right-wing extremism in Australia, the song warned against blind nationalism and encouraged responsibility of citizens to restore balance.
Photo by John McColl.
Garrett continued to press his point, aware that most in the room were in his corner, but also that Ohio had gone to Trump in the election. “This is our chance to talk to American audiences, particularly those who voted Republican,” he said. “Now’s your chance to recant and admit that you got it wrong. So to Trump we say tonight in Cleveland, your days are numbered.” Amid cheers of approval, the Oils performed the charged “Tin Legs and Tin Mines,” with its chorus asking, “Who’s running the world today?” By the end of the set, Garrett’s slogan-emblazoned t-shirt had been swapped for one that stated his position in plain and simple terms: “Dump Trump.”
The set drew to a close with more songs that spoke to social concerns while still moving people to sing and dance. The crowd joined Hillman’s keening melody for “The Dead Heart,” and raised the rafters during “Beds are Burning.” The songs were augmented by the horn playing of Jack Howard from Australian band Hunters and Collectors. Garrett leapt onto Hirst’s drum riser to play wailing harmonica during “Blue Sky Mine.”
“Forgotten Years” was featured in the encore, as the chiming Rickenbacker guitars of Moginie and Rotsey sparred and intertwined. Hirst hammered a battered water tank for his athletic drum solo during a furious finish with “Power and the Passion.” Mixing joy and responsibility, a beaming Garrett thanked the crowd and gave a final call to action before leaving the stage.
Photo by Ellen Tescher Nolan.
Thanks to the following Powderworkers for help with photographs: John McColl, Ellen Tescher Nolan, John Welk, John Palmer, Nancy Dryden, and Simon Kierse. Cover photo by John Welk.
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