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POP WEEKEND : Politics and Passion Fuel Midnight Oil Concert

July 04, 1988|DUNCAN STRAUSS

Eleven years after its formation and five years after releasing its first American album, Midnight Oil has broken through in this country.

The Australian band's current "Diesel and Dust" LP recently went gold, having passed the half-million sales mark, and its single, "Beds Are Burning," has soared into the Top 20. And while some devotees (and band members) well might say that it's about time, a better response might be that this success is nice to see. It's certainly well-earned.

Midnight Oil's music is potent, varied stuff that often tackles such issues as nuclear disarmament and aboriginal land rights, and its live shows--such as the one Saturday night at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, where the band headlined a bill that featured X and House of Freaks and pretty much packed the place--are incendiary.

Opening with "Bullroarer," Midnight Oil's five members hit the ground running, none more so than singer Peter Garrett, a towering, bald man who--between his striking appearance and lurching movements--looks like a Toon who was dismissed from "Roger Rabbit" for excessive coffee consumption.

There's nothing cartoonish, though, about the way Garrett fronts this outfit or barks lyrics that pull no punches whether examining imperialism ("U.S. Forces"), personal political commitment ("Power and the Passion") or disarmament ("Put Down That Weapon").

And, with even more detail and intensity than usual, he pulled no punches with his between-song raps, not only addressing some of those same issues but saluting "the Greenpeace officials throwing themselves in front of big boats," individuals he finds more admirable and honorable "than every paid professional politician in the world."

Garrett also blasted the money spent on the America's Cup competition and "the Paul Hogan standard of living" when there are "kids who don't have food in their tummys."

All that could strike some as shrill sloganeering. But unlike many rockers who bring politics on stage only to leave them there in a hollow gesture, Garrett puts his commitment where his mouth is. A lawyer, he ran for the Australian Senate a few years ago--nearly winning--and Midnight Oil has performed countless benefits over the years for a wide range of organizations.

Whether you buy some, all or none of the Oils' views, you're certainly inclined to listen because the band is absolutely riveting. They can, and did, turn out lovely (though still feisty) acoustic-based tunes such as "U.S. Forces" and "Kosciusko." And when they're roaring through rockers such as "Best of Both Worlds" or "Dream World"--propelled by drummer Rob Hirst, whose busy flailing recalls Keith Moon in his heyday--it's difficult to think of a better, more explosive rock band around right now. Nice that that's no longer a secret.

X, of course, is no slouch itself. Returning from a hiatus during which singer Exene Cervenka and singer/bassist John Doe each had babies, the band got off to a slow start, suggesting that it wasn't going to generate the characteristic slash-and-burn ferocity.

And in terms of consistency, it wasn't one of X's most inspired nights. The quartet turned up the heat considerably, however, on the third number, "Hungry Wolf," and hit other passionate peaks periodically with such early faves as "Los Angeles" and "Johnny Hit & Run Pauline."

The quartet wasn't just dipping into its bag of old songs, though. X introduced some new tunes and put new twists on a couple of others. In the midst of "What's Wrong With Me," Cervenka and Doe, acknowledging how close they were to Disneyland, sang a snippet of "It's a Small World." And during the final encore, "Devil Doll," the pair worked in a portion of Dylan's "Just Like a Woman." If it wasn't X in championship form, it was a very solid set and a good time was had by all--except for the guy who was ejected when he lit a sparkler during "4th of July."

House of Freaks, which opened the show, remains a neat combo with great songs but may not be quite up to playing large arenas--at the moment, at least. One of the wondrous things about the Freaks has been the extraordinary amount of music and power just two guys (singer-guitarist Bryan Harvey and drummer Johnny Mott) can produce on stage. It has worked extremely well in clubs, and even in such mid-size venues as the Universal Amphitheatre.

But, for all the earthy spunk of Harvey's singing and the enormous wallop of Mott's drumming, the Freaks' visceral vigor was noticeably diluted Saturday. Still, the L.A.-based band is relatively new and so far has overcome the odds in making its two-man-band approach succeed. So if you're betting against them ultimately figuring out how to excel in arena settings, you probably took Spinks over Tyson.

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