Concert Reviews

Midnight Oil Is the Band We Desperately Need Now

Midnight Oil performed in Denver as part of its first world tour in more than a a decade.
Midnight Oil performed in Denver as part of its first world tour in more than a a decade. Midnight Oil
"Oh, shit, I can't believe it," murmured the Midnight Oil fan sitting behind me as the band took to the Paramount Theatre stage on Tuesday, May 23.

The New Yorker in his early forties had listened to the act since his youth, he said. He had missed Midnight Oil's recent New York concert to attend his son's christening, and hadn't seen the group play since it performed on Jones Beach in the late ’90s. The man had a business meeting in Grand Junction at 3 p.m. and had sped across the Rocky Mountains to barely make the 8 p.m. show.

Next to him sat a man in his early sixties who had seen Midnight Oil play Red Rocks during the Reagan years. He recalled admiring frontman Peter Garrett's towering height, gaunt features and frenetic energy, and complained that the Paramount, filled with seats, was the wrong place to see the band. After all, how could anybody dance?

The Coloradan asked the New Yorker if he was from Australia, like Midnight Oil. "No, New York," the other man answered, amused.

When the band walked on stage, the audience greeted the musicians like long lost friends. Indeed they were. Midnight Oil has not toured for more than two decades. A fact's a fact, as the group's hit song "Beds Are Burning" goes.

The musicians are sixty-something and enviably fit — physically and musically — and creative as ever. A large ranch-station water tank served as part of the drum kit.

After a few songs, Garrett interrupted his set to share with Denver fans his sympathies for the parents and children of people killed in an attack the night before at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. The majority of the people in the world, 99.9 percent, were figuring out how to co-exist, Garrett said, and they would not be driven into fear and submission under the threat of violence. He also confessed that he didn't quite know what to say; he and the band didn't want to take up too much space on the issue. So he called for silence.

The audience quietly reflected on how a group of mostly young people who had gathered to enjoy pop music were brutally attacked by the Islamic State. When one audience member shouted, "Let's rock and roll," the band did not. Somebody in the crowd whispered, "Shut up." Another person implored the band to play. It refused, extending the silence. Fans shifted in their seats.

click to enlarge Midnight Oil - KYLE HARRIS
Midnight Oil
Kyle Harris
For a moment, I wondered whether the band would resume at all or simply stand there until everybody filed out. After all, this was the same group that held a guerrilla concert protesting Exxon outside its Manhattan offices after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. And the same group that had protested white settlers' refusal to apologize for racist anti-indigenous policies by wearing T-shirts that read "SORRY." This was also the same group that had mostly disbanded for two decades when Garrett decided to embark on a political career in Australia's government, reforming education and environmental policies.

Just when I assumed the band would walk, the show resumed. Garrett knows how to manage and appeal to a crowd. He played loads of songs and thanked his fans for taking a moment of silence.

Despite his years in government, which would soften other people, Garrett still knows how to rip up the stage. He paraded around, dishing out his awkward, stiff, post-punk dance moves, looking like a dancing string bean. He mimicked his fellow bandmates' techniques like a toddler imitating a musician. Then he warded off what appeared to be mighty panic attacks before belting out songs as poetic as they are politically charged in his strident voice and thick Aussie accent.

The mostly-gray-haired audience vacillated between jumping up and down, singing along with Garrett and taking seat breaks. Had every person in the room been as politically engaged as audiences were when the band first stormed MTV with songs like "Beds Are Burning," there is no doubt our world would be a little less poisoned by violence and a little more hospitable. People would demand that government officials look out for more than the wealthy and would have no problem paying a few extra dollars in taxes for universal health care.

"Some call it communism or socialism," Garrett said, pontificating about Obamacare, to cheers from the crowd. "We call it common sense."

Lyrics like "Too much sunshine" or "Put down that weapon" or "Can you imagine the first taste of freedom for the refugee" risked being grotesquely earnest. But Garrett's bizarre demeanor coupled with his granite confidence made it easy to get lost in his progressive vision of the world. He injected hope into the room. "It's not too late," he repeated again and again.

click to enlarge Midnight Oil - KYLE HARRIS
Midnight Oil
Kyle Harris
As the band delivered the first of two encores, Garrett returned to stage wearing a shirt with a phrase from a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox that is often erroneously attributed to Abraham Lincoln. It read in all caps: "TO SIN BY SILENCE WHEN WE SHOULD PROTEST MAKES COWARDS OUT OF MEN."

For Garrett, who has built a career combating ecocide and fighting for social justice through post-punk and politics, this is a strange time we're living in. It's no time to be silent, he said. And that's part of why the band will be flying around the world for six months: to try to save it.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris