“We’ll Always Have the Oils”: Zan Rowe on Family, Music and the Power of Midnight Oil’s Last Tour

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When Midnight Oil took the stage on Sunday night at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, it closed a chapter in live music history and not just for the band of brothers, but also for my own family.

I was 12 when mom and dad took our whole family to see Midnight Oil.

It was 1990, the band’s Blue Sky Mining tour, and for $28.50 we all headed to the National Tennis Center to see them play their hits.

The Oils had already been regulars on the home record player for years. The vinyl cover of Red Sails in the Sunset was seared into my brain.

As a six-year-old, that image of the Sydney Opera House in the midst of a nuclear attack was a visceral, ominous sign of a fear I didn’t understand.

A ticket stub from the 1990 Midnight Oil concert my family and I attended.(ABC News: Zan Rowe)

Mom and Dad would take the whole family to anti-nuclear protests around town, and while the message wasn’t very clear to me, the medium was: Use your voice.

As I grew older, the Oils records kept coming. Diesel and Dust was full of hooks and stories from Indigenous Australia that I had never heard before.

Blue Sky Mining invited me into a world that was foreign to me in the suburbs of Melbourne. I was a preteen learning about asbestos-related diseases and the horrors of war.

That night in November 1990, as we clutched our tickets and made our way to the Tennis Center, I saw it all come to life in the best way to experience the Oils: on stage.

It ignited a fire in me, a love of live music, that has never gone out.

The insect members and the wild abandon of vocalist Peter Garrett are what I remember the most.

“Why is he dancing like that? I asked my dad, who just laughed.

I remember the stage being bathed in orange lights and Rob Hirst playing a steel water tank twice the size of his drums.

Sunday evening, the tank is back on stage, although in a miniature version this time.

“Was the reservoir three times bigger when we were here 32 years ago?” I ask my mother.

“Yeah,” she replies confidently, and even though I’m still not sure if it’s a trick of age and time or the truth, I happily nod.

The public crosses the generations. Another family sits behind us.

“I brought them here when they were your age,” my mother said to the two young boys, pointing to my older brother and me.

I watch their brains struggle to calculate that we were once children like them.

Throughout the show, I will see their parents sing much-loved lyrics to them, and their own faces will light up in the shared experience.

Midnight Oil is at the Rod Laver Arena, as it is now called, for the last time.

They’ve been honest about future gigs for fundraisers, but this will be their last tour.

With him, the band launches a new album, Resist, their first in 20 years, which manages to capture and retain the ferocity of where they started 50 years ago.

They open with the album’s title track, and it’s only fitting that the images projected behind them are those of resistance around the world, past and present.

There is a heartfelt call to listen to Uluru’s statement from the heart.

At one point, an audience member throws a T-shirt on stage showing his support for the Ukrainian people, and Peter Garrett immediately puts it on.

The new songs sit alongside the old in a kind of striking parallel, as Rising Seas’ 2022 songs reflect the environmental activism their music has championed since day.

Four people, three wearing face masks, holding posters for the band Midnight Oil, with a crowd of people standing behind them.
My family and I after Sunday’s Midnight Oil show in Melbourne.(ABC News: Zan Rowe)

It’s a seated show, and you can feel the rows quivering as the old stuff is played.

I turn to see my parents singing, perfect word, the classics, and look out over the crowd to see fans jumping out of their seats to dance with abandon.

They wave their arms like Garrett: The Power of Performance.

Since their last tour, Midnight Oil have lost longtime bassist Bones Hillman to cancer.

The show is dedicated to him, but it’s not the only time the Oils stop to remember a friend.

A day earlier, the world learned of the shocking death of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, and as Midnight Oil embarks on Power and the Passion, drummer Rob Hirst stands ready to deliver a eulogy to his late friend , before erasing his kit into one of the greatest drum solos in history.

When the lights go out after the last song, black and white images of Hillman, Hawkins, the late Mushroom Records founder Michael Gudinski and cricketer Shane Warne appear on the giant video screens.

With the celebration of this last musical communion comes the reminder of loss and some difficult years in music.

It’s been 32 years since we arrived at the Tennis Center with excitement in our stomachs. To see the band playing on our old record player at home, for my parents to offer us what they already knew: music should be experienced fully and live.

During this time, we ourselves have lost loved ones. But we always have us, and we always will have the oils.

midnight oil final tour keep on going.

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