One of the premier bands of the 1980s, Australia’s Midnight Oil is plotting a return to international prominence with that unmistakable big-bass, big-drum sound and the charismatic, herky-jerky flailing about of its 6½-foot-tall bald leader, Peter Garrett. Band debuted a few new tunes Wednesday at the second of two packed L.A. club gigs that revealed a tonal softness, almost Beatlesque, that could permeate its new release, now slated for February.
Generally speaking, though, perf was more a re-acquaintance gig to remind fans that the act has not lost any of its ferocity. Garrett still possesses an enviable mix of conviviality and intensity, the drum and bass still crack with precision and anthems such as “Beds Are Burning” still bristle and inspire. Band immediately asserted itself with 1998’s “Redneck Wonderland,” the title track from its last studio album; although its sales were slim, the zeal of the band’s best work still was omnipresent.
But just as the 1990s were unkind to the likes of Billy Bragg, who didn’t have Margaret Thatcher and an antiquated social order to kick around anymore, Midnight Oil’s effectiveness has been tempered by the times. In its heyday it was way ahead of the game, a band that supplied road maps and informed the world of social injustice and global concerns in the manner of our best poets and writers. Now it comes off a bit as yesterday’s news. One can’t help but nod as Garrett sings of aboriginal land rights and South African reform — no matter how many battles are yet to be won, Midnight Oil needs new causes.
That said, the band still displays considerable fire in the belly, and it probably will take a project or two, like Bragg’s Woody Guthrie-related work, to get it back in the public eye. A tour that lined Midnight Oil up with fellow Aussie bands Men at Work and INXS never came to fruition, for which they should be thankful: The music of Midnight Oil was never limited by geography and its place in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon shouldn’t be either.