In his Welcome to Country at the final WOMADelaide 2021 concert, Jamie Goldsmith reflected on the circular nature of time. And this was certainly true for Monday’s headline act Midnight Oil – as well as for me and probably many in the audience (and full disclosure – I am a fan).

The seminal Australian act was returning to play WOMADelaide, having last performed at the festival nearly two and a half decades ago. Back then, they were touring in anticipation of their greatest hits release. But now they are re-formed and back to perform many of these iconic songs, alongside the material from their first album of new material in 18 years.

And there is something circular about this recent material too, serving as a kind of sequel to their most famous album, 1987’s Diesel and Dust. In the mid-eighties, the Sydney-based band had ventured into central Australia on a mission to educate themselves about the First Nations experience. They engaged with communities and toured remote locations to play with outback Aboriginal rock group, The Warumpi Band on the Blackfella/Whitefella Tour.

Along with a profound personal impact, the artistic consequences for the Oils included songs like ‘Beds are Burning’, ‘The Dead Heart’ and ‘Warrakurna’. Of course, the band covered similar territory both before and after Diesel and Dust, but never with same direct focus. That is until The Makarrata Project arrived last year, a mini-album that begs the question: why haven’t we managed to address so many of the problems the Oils were singing about three and half decades ago?

The difference between this album and its mid-eighties antecedent, is that this time songs are the result of a true artistic collaboration with First Nations artists, both in composition and performance. And tonight was a unique opportunity to experience this in full.

Standing in the audience, I also became aware of the circular nature of time for me. The Oils are the best live act I have seen and, experiencing them as a re-formed act, I am taken right back to many of those incredible gigs.

I became a fan at age 12 or 13 when I discovered Diesel and Dust – and those songs were my first real point of education about Aboriginal Australia and many of the social issues we have failed to deal with as a nation.

So on Monday night I brought along my 13 year old daughter, Niamh. She was familiar with many of the songs from my music collection – but I really just wanted her to be able to experience one of the all time great live acts. And looking around at the audience on Monday, I wasn’t the only one – with many parents bringing the kids.

But of course, the concert wasn’t just about the Oils, and the evening’s program was kicked off by Siberian Tiger. With no international acts this year, it’s great to see the festival supporting local, with the opening slot given to this rising star of the Adelaide scene.

The night built its momentum slowly and Siberian Tiger, with gentle, emotive melodies and varied instrumentation was the perfect start. The duo opened their set backed by a stringed section before being joined by full band – fantastic to hear all that Adelaide talent gathered on the big stage.

Were it not for the Oils, the Teskey Brothers could be headlining in their own right, with a mix of soul and blues – that’s a perfect WOMAD fit.

Musically, each member of the act complements the others so well. Forming the heart of the outfit, however, are the two bothers, Josh Teskey on vocals and Sam Teskey on lead guitar. Josh’s heartfelt vocals are perfect for this genre, like something out of another time, while Sam plays with incredible tone, inserting the kind of expressive phrases we just don’t hear enough of anymore.

This band are always good for a cover and tonight it was INXS’s ‘Never Tear Us Apart’; an excellent version – as though it was always meant to be played by a soul outfit with full brass section.

Things kicked up a gear with the Cocker inspired jam, ‘Paint My Heart’, before the clap-along groove of ‘Louisa’ to finish off the main set. We were then treated to a stripped back, mostly a cappella version of ‘Hold Me’, with Josh Teskey leading us all in beautiful singing to conclude to the performance.

And then it was time for the Oils. They began in characteristic fashion with a trio of songs that stitched together moments from Redneck Wonderland (1998), Earth and Sun and Moon (1993), and Red Sails in the Sunset (1984). It was a visceral opening, demonstrating the Oils have lost none of their power, but it also set the tone for what was to follow, with these songs tackling both historical and societal racism in this country.

The crowd had been on their feet throughout this opening bracket but then took their seats as the more reflective tone of the Makarrata section of the show commenced with a recorded reading of the Uluru Statement From the Heart set effectively to visuals. The statement was completed on stage by Troy Cassar-Daley and moved into the welcoming strains of ‘Come on Down’.

The Makarrata songs were performed with many of the First Nations artists who had collaborated on the album last year, making this a unique and inspirational performance: a roll call of Leah Flanagan (who also provided backing vocals throughout the set), Dan Sultan, Tasman Keith, Coloured Stone’s Bunna Lawrie and Frank Yamma (with whom the Oils had connected in the Western Desert during their eighties trip – another instance of circular time).

A highlight of the set was ‘Terror Australia’, sung with stark power by emerging artist Alice Skye, her stirring vocals set only to a backdrop of Jim Moginie’s organ and Martin Rotsey’s pared back guitar. My daughter told me this was one of the highlights of her night – and testimony to how this band reinvents itself for a new audience. And it carries the distinction of being, to my knowledge, the only Oils track not to feature Peter Garrett or Rob Hirst.

Finishing this section of the show with the gentle optimism of ‘Wind in My Head’, we were then transported back to 1982 through a searing version of ‘Only the Strong’ – Peter Garrett throwing himself around as though he was forty years younger.

‘Luritja Way’ made us mindful of both the passing of time and its circular nature, with the presence of longtime Oils bass player, the late Bones Hillman, felt keenly. Bones would normally sing the bridge section on this song, but this is now powerfully rendered by Leah Flanagan with support from Liz Stringer. It is also significant that Adam Ventoura has slipped seamlessly into the role of bass player. It’s no easy feat stepping into the shoes of someone who had been in the band for more than 30 years, but Ventoura has made the transition well.

By the time Rob Hirst ventured to the front of stage to take over lead vocal duties (while also drumming busker-style) for ‘Kosciuszko’, Niamh put her arm around me and said: “Thanks so much for bringing me!”

Observing how engaged she was by the performance and hearing her sing along to the better known songs in the setlist, I could look back and see my own thirteen self discovering this band.

Excellent versions of ‘Best of Both Worlds’ and ‘Power and the Passion’ then finished the main set, the latter characterised by Hirst’s inventive and explosive drumming.

There was only time for a single-song encore, but that’s all that was needed with a reinvented version of ‘Beds Are Burning’ that featured all collaborators from the performance – Tasman Keith’s mid-song rap was a particularly stunning moment.

The song felt completely new again, but in the circular nature of the night, this brought us back to that moment in the eighties when this five-piece first ventured out of the city and into central Australia, while also forcing the question: why hasn’t the time come?

Written by Matthew Trainor

Photos supplied, credit: Wade Whitington