(Photo by Selina McGrath)
Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, October 3
THERE IT WAS, THE SCENE-SETTER, THE NIGHT-STALKER, the defining sound and image of a band not short of defining sounds and images, from the herky jerky dancing and plangent hectoring of Peter Garrett and the free exchange of free guitaring that is the genius Martin Rotsey and Jim Moginie duumvirate, to those impossible/vicious/killer basslines of Andrew James and Peter Gifford (now played by the singularly impressive Adam Ventoura, who replaced the irreplaceable Bones Hillman).
There it was, right from the start as we watched and heard the left arm of Rob Hirst coming down like a spring-loaded dropped weight on the snare, sending out a crack like a snapping branch, and bouncing back up high. Then again. And again. Whatever else was coming, whatever else we wanted to come – and everyone had a list of songs, a Garrett-length wishlist, that even a near four-hour show could never satisfy – this let us know we were in the right place at the best of times.
Okay, you could argue the last show of the last tour by one of the greatest bands we will ever see doesn’t qualify as the best of times but rather more like the saddest of times. Not least, let’s be honest, because we had to go to work tomorrow too, sore of foot, aching of back, ringing of ears – ain’t it the truth that “We’re all looking for a shorter day/We’re all looking for an easy way” – with little sympathy expected.
(And anyone needing proof that this wasn’t the reckless days in the human waves at the Lifesaver or the War & Peace 42 years ago got it a few seconds into the second song, Used And Abused, when Garrett stopped proceedings to politely but very firmly direct an idiot who had been careering through the crowd like a pinball-cum-wrecking ball to move to the side or be escorted out.)
But this was anything but a weepy farewell. Hirst grinned like a cream-guzzling cat, Moginie looked pretty pleased at key moments, Garrett was slightly less garrulous but also slightly less tense than he’s been since the 2017 reformation, and even the usually impassively focused Rotsey let a small smile play at the corner of his mouth every now and then. (Ventoura, who had learnt 94 songs for this farewell tour, was too busy keeping busy to indulge in anything like loose emotion.)
And that was just on stage, not quite “20 hours to Brisbane on a night prowl play”. Out in the world where the rest of us were, in this always unappealing “concrete cavern [that] catches the sky” that still somehow, despite itself, works as an iconic venue, there was cascading pleasure. There was recognition and surprise and energy and puzzlement and muscle memory and community and righteous fury and joy and individual reminiscence. There was 40 songs, three hours and forty minutes, three encores.
We had a lot to draw on.
(Photo by Joseph Mayers)
We had Stand In Line, with another insistent, punishing bassline setting up some fabulous guitar histrionics, and We Are Not Afraid, coming across like a sea shanty crossed with a Spanish folk song, just missing a violin (that sea breeze then blown away by the chill snap of Cold Cold Change).
We took Surf’s Up Tonight followed by Surfing With A Spoon, going from tender to tensile, carolling to carousel, and the quietly treading Wind In My Head and Luritja Way separated by a whip-sharp US Forces.
We grabbed Dan Sultan putting the high charging on Gadigal Land and Leah Flanagan and Liz Stringer throwing their arms around a half dozen more, and bent our bodies through I’m The Cure (unplayed for more than 30 years) and If Ned Kelly Was King.
Even so, this wasn’t one of the great Oils gigs, those intense single mode/full on mood shows where everything seemed to funnel you towards a euphoric surf out of the room at the end of the night. But then that wasn’t its purpose: they’re no strangers to brutality, but now and then they like to be someone else.
After all, how about a band which never did romance or vulnerability yet never succumbed to macho posturing, offering tenderness instead about the natural environment or a communal care and empathy through In The Valley or One Country. And then kicking out the jams motherfuckers with Only The Strong.
Instead of singularity this was a whole of life story that zigged and zagged from 1978’s self-titled debut to this year’s Resist, through the many angles, side-roads and exploratory excursions that make up the catalogue (including the play-on track of the arthouse soundscape, Kingdom Of Flaunt). Greatness was found in its complexity and humanity, and yes, in its finality.
Naturally no one really wanted it to stop. And it never felt like it should. I mean look at this point, when the force of Don’t Wanna Be The One flowed into the pop gem of Blue Sky Mine at the three-hour mark. That’s a peak right? Uh-huh: here come the Hercules.
Bloody hell. Yeah, bugger it, bugger tomorrow’s alarm, bugger that throbbing in your extremities, if this is goodbye give us more. More!
1. Everything’s set, everything’s fine, you’ve just got to stand in line.
The Prime Minister, the artist formerly known as DJ Albo, was there, as was his equally ‘80s/’90s Sydney music scene obsessed colleague, Tanya Plibersek, who queued for tickets en famille, while presumably the former Prime Minister was sorting through his Tina Arena CDs at home while listening to 1927. Elsewhere in the room were members of Hoodoo Gurus and Cold Chisel, the former head of EMI (who might once have been running the Oils’ label if corporate skulduggery hadn’t been rewarded instead), among an audience where “young” – relatively speaking – and some very young (sensibly most of them with heavy-duty ear protection on) tried valiantly to redress an age imbalance that tilted (!) alarmingly. Speaking of which …
2. This is something I will remember.
Thirty five minutes into the show Peter Garrett, put ON another layer, a second t-shirt under his shirt, and then later a third. For those of us who remember his sweat-drenched dome, his sweat-drenched singlet, his sweat-drenched pants halfway through any Oils gig, wondering how he wasn’t just a puddle well before the encore, this seems madness. Who the hell are you?
3. Sydney, nights are warm/Daytime telly, blue rinse dawn.
Typical Sydney: forget the nanny state, we are in the nana state. More than an hour before the band finishes (which is before 11pm, and even then, hardly the witching hour is it?, decades on from when Garrett derisively sang of towns where “the pubs are closed at 10”), the bar in the main room closes. How can we drink when our gig’s still going? Fair question, and I wasn’t even drinking. For an audience of – and I’m being kind to us here – of your more “mature” citizens whose acts of rebellion these days lean towards skipping ‘90s Heardle for the “good stuff” of earlier decades, this is laughably prissy. It would never have happened at the Antler.