NAVIGATING THE GREAT CIRCLE
By Jim Moginie – Song Writer, Guitarist; Keyboardist with Midnight Oil
All the rehearsal in the world couldn’t prepare us for this.
The primal scream of Midnight Oil, with onstage vocals inaudible above it. Like riding the locomotive downhill, out of control with flames coming out the back. 15 years off, and now this. Rip Van Winkle dragged screaming into the dawn. I need to see my therapist.
This is our first show, a surprise set at Sydney’s Marrickville Bowlo. Normally it’s a freewheeling jam session on a liquid fuelled and languid Sunday afternoon. Today at midday a brigade of road crew in black shirts descend upon it. Displaying tattoos and self-styled facial hair they swarm, checking stage power, phase correlating front of house and monitors, investigating security and possible threats to our personage. Something this place, I suspect, has never experienced. With the usual Clip Loc covered outside area; plastic chairs on white concrete, ashtrays, bain-marie, TV screens and dusty bowling green.
Word got out officially a couple of hours before the show that is was on, but the rumours had a suburb length queue around the block hours before that. Everybody wants in if it’s your hometown, the plumber, the friend of a friend’s taxidermist, the neighbour. For me and others, juggling the guest list was much harder than playing the show. The audience were excited, but I am in the grip of a kind of sweaty déjà vu, 25 years of long service (1977-2002) flashing before my eyes.
Thus we find ourselves traversing the globe for the best part of 9 months on what is appropriately called The Great Circle Tour. Cannily named, not just for its use of a navigational term but because if we were going to come back and tour, it would have to be global and not just Australia because of our history overseas. At the Midnight Oil exhibition, which toured in our absence from active duty, my knees would always go weak when I stood before the epic list of shows the band had done over 25 years of being a live unit; a veritable Roll of Honour.
For this is a reunion of a band that did all these years on the boards, and then dispersed in a puff of smoke in 2002. Peter pursued politics, the rest of us dove into various musical ventures. I went into, well, pretty much everything; record production, songwriting collaborations, soundtracks, solo albums, playing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Irish music, an electric guitar orchestra, an artist in residence. Bones moved to Nashville to become an in demand bassist. Rob, myself and Martin formed The Break, an instrumental surf band with Violent Femmes bassist Brain Ritchie and H&C’s trumpeter Jack Howard, who joins us on The Great Circle as well. Pete had done a solo record with Martin onboard and they had just toured. We had all played together a lot so the core was intact.
Hulking down in a rehearsal complex in flightpath compromised Sydenham, starting late in 2016, we rehearsed 170 songs for 3 months in order to give a deeper Midnight Oil experience for those in the audience that love the older stuff especially. All of our songs are like our kids in one way or another and none of us like to play favourites. We say that, but when it comes to creating the set list every night songs like “Hercules”, “Beds are Burning”, “Forgotten Years”, “Blue Sky Mine” et al are the hits which people go pretty apeshit to when we play them. So they’re always included, if only as ‘special needs’ children. We vary the songs every night for the fans and ourselves, but it’s always a deep retrospective of our history. If anything, The Great Circle is a regrouping of a lost brotherhood and celebration of that music we created. A show and a half production wise, its Ableton free (I don’t know how Ableton works) so it’s organic and human. We make all the sounds, no onstage laptops or dancers, yet.
After a private gig for a charity, the third show was former stomping ground and rock pub Selina’s in beachside Coogee, recently famous for the human faeces in the ice cream incident. We knocked off our 1979 album ‘Head Injuries’ from top to bottom amid a 2 ½ hour show. We had no idea the set would be that long but all the songs had a reason to be there. Afterwards we were dazed like old boxers, but it went off well after all those Sydenham workouts.
The tour then relocated from Coogee to Brazil. Dealing with jet lag, the traveller’s curse, we holed up a hotel near an anonymous freeway in Porto Alegre for a 2 days to get acclimatised. In Brazil we are going to play to between 2000 and 8000 people per night. Having played here twice before it’s a joyous crowd, always a party going on, an innocence and joie de vivre in abundance. These are not the relatively spoilt-for-choice rock audiences of the USA. It seems the Brazilians have a jones for that particular 80’S Oz rock guitar band sound that has many an older Australian collective making their way over. We gamely take old airplanes between each of the cities: Santiago, Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia.
On a day off we fit in an impromptu gig on the helicopter deck of the Rainbow Warrior. She has pulled into Rio for a few days shore leave. She carries a cargo of the bravest and most idealistic souls you could ever meet. They have taken the holy orders, believing they can change the course of the world and improve the environment for our children by their actions against the forces of evil. And they do. Going aboard this vessel is a high thrill of a lifetime for me. The bearded captain is a delightfully grumpy old man that I get on with well, there are radio people, web people, mechanics and deckhands. The photographer sports a stunning tattoo down the entire length of her arm; it’s her life journey complete with whales, trees, and ayahuasca.
So it begins. On a more mundane level, the band travels around as a group joined at the hip, sometimes with various partners present. The chirpy nature of their presence lightens the mood, the stoicism of Oil that can get a bit blokey and morose if left unattended. Colds and disease incubate and spread like plague through the petri dish of our touring party. We take things to stop this threat: probiotics, vitamin C, echinacea, fish oil, Vitamin b12, zinc, you name it. Pete is the first to go with a flu bug, it was tradition in the old days he would get crook after the first show and history always repeats. He struggles but gets there brilliantly every night. A natural creature of the stage, just lead him to it and he leaps from the sick bed like a dervish.
We have a day off between shows generally, called ‘rest day’ but it’s usually ‘travel day’. These are necessary for any over-60’s political rocker worth his salt to recover from the physicality of his own personal performance ethic. And being of that vintage, we limit talk of personal illnesses to 90 seconds maximum when someone inquires after one’s health.
Not much to complain about though. But in the God forbidden country of the USA, tea making is a lost art banished to the days before independence from the Brits. A tea bag floating atop tepid microwaved water in a polystyrene cup is the ghastly default setting here. As a result, I carry a tea making kit, and idea originally conceived by our old mate and didgeridoo player Charlie McMahon. Ceramic pot, strainer, real leaf tea, tea board and a multi voltage jug, it makes life worth living and my suitcase a lot heavier.
As an antidote to all this health talk, there’s a couple of bottles of red and assorted beers on the rider in the rock tradition. There’s a bottle of Jameson’s Irish whiskey backstage for me, purely medicinal of course, from which I generally have a slug from afterwards. It also makes the meet and greet experience more, well, loquacious but it’s no mistake that most older rockers are in recovery if they’re not dead already after countless years of this kind of liver punishment. We all walk that line between feeling good and being a slave to the stuff. With gigs in hotels, record contacts signed during alcohol fuelled lunches, it’s also the omnipresent antidote to the adrenalin once the footlights go down.
Always there are lots of lovely people outside before and after the shows with old albums, set lists, or ticket stubs for us to sign. Even guitar pick guards, though I think they might sell these on eBay. I sign them anyway in the hope that I’ll flood the market.
It’s a real pleasure to meet these people, I could never be blasé about their love of our band. The shows are sold out; people haven’t forgotten us it seems. The message rings true in America (and worldwide) right now. In this era of fake news, celebrities with actual power, twitter rule and the unfolding White House slow motion car crash, the timing of the reunion is uncanny. Our songs haven’t dated at all, in fact the lyrics are as true today as when they were penned, sadly and none of this is lost on any of us.
In the USA we’re in the old theatres, ornate and decorated, magic frescoed cathedral like spaces for music with big stages, roomy backstage areas and good sound. And the band as a live touring juggernaut sounds good and solid, fiery and fresh as a daisy.
And now to the present moment. We played a festival last night in Normandy in the grounds of an ancient chateau to about 20,000 French people. The word buzz doesn’t even come close. We are dealing with the glory of a life of performance and audience approbation. This is the drug that has burnt into the circuit boards of any seasoned performers’ psyche, including our own. The crowd was brilliant and animated under a full moon, and the band played a strong set which went down well. The festivals give you a maximum of an hour to win them over and it’s mostly an audience that has never seen you before. So the set list has to be constructed differently, more of a caricature of the band than the full 2 hour plus free dive of our own shows. Simply, you have to play all the hits.
Now we travel in the tour bus overnight from Normandy down to the Spanish French border and another festival. It’s a 17 hour drive. We have another 3 weeks of these kind of drives ahead ending at Ostrava in the Czech Republic. It’s Saturday today, but it could be any day of the week. Midday approaches and the French countryside races by. Steeples, mustard coloured fields, baguette life with last night’s calvados still on the tongue. Bodies of sleeping musicians and partners are ensconced in 4 bunks 3 high, a veritable morgue in the centre of the bus that you tip toe through at all hours of the day. A palm, face up and open, protrudes through the curtain in the tomb like sleeping area. Snorts, strange sleeping noises of humans has anyone creeping around like a thief. All hours truck stops, artificial light, grabbing whatever food you can. But everyone seems quite health conscious these days. We seem to be eating a hell of a lot of salad.
Looking forward to the Australian shows, but there’s a way to go yet. Lots and lots of salad.