Live: Midnight Oil Rock For Aboriginal Rights

Politically-active rockers jam biggest hits at benefit concert for native people's land rights.

VICTORIA, Australia -- His legs and arms flailing and his voice crying out, Midnight Oil's frontman Peter Garrett seemed like a man possessed Tuesday night.

If there was any doubt about his dancing abilities, there was no question about his passions for political causes.

Garrett and the rest of his socially conscious bandmates made a surprise appearance at an aboriginal land rights benefit concert Tuesday night here, playing many of their biggest hits to a capacity crowd of about 600 fans and fellow countrymen who were not necessarily sure who they'd come to see, nor why.

Held at the Prince Of Wales Hotel in St. Kilda, "Stick With Wik" was organized as a protest of the federal government's proposed "Ten-Point Plan" to abolish the landmark Wik party ruling that aboriginal land rights can co-exist with government issued pastoral leases. The concert featured a host of Australian talent including kitsch popster Dave Graney and fiery folk-rock act Weddings Parties Anything. But most in attendance had come out that night to see the act billed as "special mystery guests."

By show time there was little doubt who the guests would be. In fact, as the moment drew near, a slow, continuous chant of "Oils, Oils, Oils" drifted through the capacity crowd. Yet even when the band's distinctive six-foot-seven and bald lead-singer, Garrett, finally strode on stage just before midnight, he was greeted with howls of surprise and screams of delight. He and the band responded accordingly, plowing through some of their most fervent political anthems and a few appropriate covers.

With a long history of involvement in social and political issues from native Indian and workers' rights to pollution, alterna-rockers Midnight Oil have earned a reputation as the rock 'n' roll "political gun for hire." That said, the band showed a fantastic sense of irony by opening with a swampy groove-based cover of Bob Dylan's highly outspoken "Political World." Garrett stood motionless, staring into space as he spat out Dylan's caustic lyrics machine-gun style.

About to embark on a tour in support of their recently released greatest

hits collection 20,000 Watt R.S.L., the quintet played a fiery hour-long

set featuring a number of their better-known songs, including "Dead

Heart" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Tell Me the Truth."

They also included emotional readings of some frighteningly relevant material, in particular an aggressive version of "Truganini," a song recounting the life of the sole surviving Tasmanian aborigine who'd suffered through a bloody military campaign which forced his peaceful people to resettle elsewhere in the country.

The always aggressive Garrett, whose tightly twisting and jerking movements compliment the band's driving melodies, seemed confined by the tiny stage. Still, the site only added to the show's energy, as Garrett appeared a caged wild animal determined to break free. When he finally let loose with his trademark flailing arms and manic dancing, the crowd erupted into a near hysteria.

Despite his in-your-face performance, the band's frontman showed sensitivity between songs, offering a heartfelt plea for racial harmony and tolerance.

Appropriately enough, the set concluded with a cover of the aboriginal group Warumpi's ode to co-existence "Black Fella/ White Fella." The words to the song seemed to echo in the theater even as the band left the stage and the crowd hollered for more.

Fortunately, Midnight Oil showed incredible restraint by not returning for an encore -- instead electing to let the issue they'd come to defend have the final say. [Wed., Nov. 19, 1997, 2 p.m. PDT]