Journal: News & Comment

Sunday, May 12, 2002
# 9:42:00 PM:

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The secret of rock 'n' roll

A great rock 'n' roll band doesn't just have a great rhythm section -- they are a great rhythm section, and Midnight Oil proved it last night here in Vancouver.

Over their 25-year career, the Oils have learned to be one big, fat, thundering rhythm machine, like a Down Under post-British Invasion version of James Brown's JBs. Lead vocalist Peter Garrett isn't much of a singer, but he can scream and croak and rant incomprehensibly better than anyone. When he bent his towering bald frame down at the front of the Commodore stage on Saturday night, wailing out a psychotic babble while his four bandmates unleashed a sustained explosion behind and over him, you couldn't ask for much more in a rock show.

These guys aren't youngsters -- they're as old or older than Sting, the guys in U2, or the members of R.E.M. They reached back twenty years to play songs like "Read About It" that still ring true today ("The rich get richer/The poor get the picture/The bombs never hit you/When you're down so low"). Yet they also managed to make new tracks from their Capricornia album like "Say Your Prayers" and "Luritja Way" roar with the same train-running-off-the-rails intensity -- even when they were playing acoustically with drummer Rob Hirst standing up at a mini-kit at the edge of the stage.

They played pretty melodies ("Tin Legs and Tin Mines" from the early '80s) and harsh, atonal punk-metal ("Concrete," from 1998). They sweated and leaped around the stage with enough energy to put bands three decades younger to shame. They played hits and obscurities.

Think of the best rock performances, the ones that carry you away:

  • "Mystery Train" by Elvis Presley
  • "Maybellene" by Chuck Berry
  • "I Saw Her Standing There" by the Beatles
  • "Oye Como Va" by Santana
  • "Black Dog" by Led Zeppelin
  • the Who's "Live at Leeds" album
  • "I Wanna Be Sedated" by the Ramones
  • "I Will Follow" by U2
  • "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana

...and on. Each one is propulsive, and somewhere each one fuses guitars, bass, drums, and voice into a single rhythm.

Midnight Oil have a whole bunch of songs like that. At the end of the night, for their second encore, after they'd already played "Beds are Burning" and seemed to have exhausted any possibility of going out on a higher note, they let the lid off of "Sometimes," the last track on 1988's Diesel and Dust album ("Sometimes you're beaten to the floor/Sometimes you're taken to the wall/But you don't give in"). The pedal was on the floor. Garrett was frightening. They were loud, tight, blazing, full bore. Couldn't get any better, I thought.

And then they kicked in the afterburners, like the final, desperate self-destruction of a fireworks display. Boom. Wow.


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