music, memories and midnight oil

Memories are a funny thing, particularly as you get a little older. Sometimes you have to dig around to find that lost one just out of reach somewhere in the dim dark recesses of the extraordinary thing we call the human brain. Other times though, they come flooding out, unbidden, unexpected and impossible to resist. And music has a way of drawing out memories more than just about anything else, transporting us in an instant to another time and place.

Last night I had just such an experience.

I was standing in a crowd of 8000 at Brisbane’s Riverstage, singing and dancing (yes, true, I did dance) along with the incomparable Midnight Oil. They’re in the middle of what is billed as their final tour after thrilling crowds for more than 40 years. As a lifelong fan, I had to be there, there was no option.

And as we stood, sang, danced (ok, I confess, it was what might be charitably described as “dad-dancing”), the memories came pouring forth.

Memories of sneaking an under-aged brother into a licenced venue gig in the early 90s. Of Boondall Entertainment Centre absolutely packed to the rafters for Crowded House and Hunters and Collectors…but clearly most of the punters there mainly for Midnight Oil. Of gig, after gig, after gig.

Perhaps most memorable, an insane Saturday night at the Alexandra Headlands Hotel, the room heaving with sweaty, singing, dancing bodies, the atmosphere so intense the room practically had its own weather system (and eventually it did as Peter Garrett threw jugs of water over the crowd from the stage, and the lads up the back started doing the same with jugs of beer).

At most of those shows I shared the joy with Sheri, and in recent years had the opportunity to take my then 14 year old son, and last night my now 14 year old daughter for not only their first big rock concert, but their first (and probably last) Oils gig.

These memories and more came flooding back as we rocked away the night. I wasn’t exactly sad, though I’ll definitely miss seeing this band live. More that the band and the music took me on a tour through some of the key moments of my own life as they played through a phenomenal back-catalogue interspersed some belters from their latest (trust me, it’s worth a few listens to the new album Resist).

I sometimes wonder what it is about Midnight Oil that I find inescapable. Why I have a full set of their albums; why I still send spotify playing an Oils playlist; why my most prized possession is a signed postcard from the band on the occasion of my 30th birthday (thanks Tracey…still don’t know how you organised it!).

Perhaps it’s that the band and the music has been something of a soundtrack for my life. With each album they’ve grown and matured and changed, as my own life has done likewise. There are songs from the band that line up with some of the big moments of my own story.

Perhaps it’s the message within the music, a powerful call to justice, to indigenous reconciliation, to an environmental consciousness – my own political views and interests do echo those of the band after all. And a band that has done its best to live out the protest that infuses the lyrics, not just sing about it.

Or perhaps it’s just that as a live music act, there is nothing quite like Midnight Oil. The power and the passion is a much over-used and hackneyed phrase when describing them…but like so many cliches it works precisely because it is true. You couldn’t watch last night and not be blown away by the raw fury of classics like Stand in Line and Back on the Borderline, or the joy with which the crowd joined in the much-loved Beds are Burning, King of the Mountain and Read About It. Then there’s the song after which the cliche is named. There’s maybe nothing quite so incredible, quite so riotous, quite so oddly joyful as seeing drummer Rob Hirst cut loose in the epic drum solo in Power and the Passion. Everybody knows it’s coming, that he’s about to add some more dents and dings to the corrugated iron water tank that is the oh-so-Australian addition to his drum kit, and that he’s about to destroy yet another set of drumsticks in the process. It still never fails to live up to expectations.

Far from just phoning in some old-timey classics though, the band threw in a few of the latest. Resist is a powerful call to arms, At the Time of Writing might just have been the song of the night (for me at least), and then there was eight thousand voices belting out what may be destined to become one of the band’s most famed lyrics of all time…”who left the bag of idiots open?” in the three-part epic Barka-Darling River.

They’re an interesting band to watch too. Garrett is of course unmistakable. Even if the phrenetic fury of “those” dance moves has calmed down (just a little), the voice, face and physical presence dominate. Martin Rotsey wails away on guitar, while Jim Mogine brings a musical genius to the outfit that is astonishing. With the passing of long-term bassist Bones Hillman, newcomer Adam Ventoura steps in, accompanied on this tour by the extra (and welcome) vocal talents of Liz Stringer and Leah Flanagan (her duet with Garret on First Nation yet another highlight). For me though, it seems obvious that drummer and singer Rob Hirst is the heart and soul of the band. He writes a lot of the music along with Moginie, and is one of those people you just can’t look away from. And from the outside at least, it looks like he is having a flat-out blast from start to finish. I don’t reckon the smile left his face once all night. Fittingly, he is last to walk off stage, last to wave.

Before you know it, the show is done. Another memory locked away to emerge unexpectedly somewhere down the track

Of course by now you’ve realised I’m no independent music critic. And to be honest I don’t have the musical knowledge to really analyse the show, the band or the songs. I’m a fan. Always have been, and always will be. And I was delighted to have just one more chance to be taken on a trip by this band that has meant so much to so many for so long.

Music has a way of drawing memories, and so many of mine are connected to this exceptional band. If this is to be the last show I see, it’s a fitting end. Long live the memories.

who’s in the band?

Just about every job I can think of has elements of repetition in it.

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Whether you’re a tax accountant, a bus driver, a school teacher, a professional athlete or a nurse…some days must feel like groundhog day. The same tasks, over and over again.

Recently I got to thinking about bands and musicians in this light.  How, I wondered, does a band play the same song over, and over, and over. Every night in front of a new audience, in a new city, but the same song.  And if it’s a big hit song, they might play it hundreds, or thousands of times over decades. Over and over and over.

Somehow the challenge must be to find a way for it to be fresh every night. Every audience wants to feel like the band are loving the song. Every night there has to be passion, excitement, enthusiasm for that same song.

How do they sing the same song night after night, after night?

I was pondering this in light of a work project that I’m involved in. We’ve been at it for a couple of years, with a couple more to go – and part of my job is the storytelling. So I often find myself sharing the same story, or giving the same presentation. How, I wondered, will I stay motivated and fresh for the years to come?

I was pondering this question with a wise friend who responded like this:

“Scott”, he said, “I think it’s not always about the song.”

“It’s not even about the audience, not always”.

“Mostly, it’s about the band.  The band that are committed to each other, that love making music together, that draw their energy from one another, that believe in something together.”

“If you want to stay fresh, and keep your energy for this project, then it’s about the band. Who is in your band? Who are you making music with? What do you believe in together?”

It struck me as a profound insight, and a really good question.

Later that same night, Australian television presenter Waleed Ali interviewed Dave Grohl of the band Foo Fighters. At one point in the interview, the conversation turned to what it’s like for a band to play in front of small audiences in a post-COVID environment, rather than the stadiums full of raving fans that Foo Fighters are more used to.

While acknowledging they love playing in front of people, Grohl’s response struck me. He said:

“When the six of us get together with instruments in our laps, I don’t really care how many people are there, it just feels good to be with my guys, making music.”

And there it is. The audience does matter, and the music matters, but in a profound and important way, it’s about the band.

So when I think about my work project, I’m left with this question…who’s in the band with me? What’s the music we are driven to play together? I think perhaps the band is where my motivation might come from.

And I suspect that might be true for many of us, no matter the job. So…how about you? Who’s in your band?

the power of every place….and no place

I’ve been listening to Stu Larsen’s new EP Ryeford, and I want to tell you about it. Before I do, there are two things you need to know.

Firstly, I’m not a music reviewer, or a music professional, or even a musician. And this is a not a place you would normally read about music. The fact that I can’t help writing about Ryeford might tell you something about it.

The second is that the artist I’m going to write about, Stu Larsen, is my cousin. We’re related. I may be biased. You can judge. The truth is, that I listened to the music because Stu is my cousin. But I listened again (and again, and again) because I was captured by it. Continue reading