Driven by Angry Hope

Australia's Midnight Oil brings America music with a social conscience. MUSIC: REVIEW

THEIR message is serious; their music is serious. But basically they're just five happy guys who like clean beaches, guitars, and ``the smell of the wallaby stew,'' to quote a lyric. Midnight Oil, Australia's politically and environmentally minded rock quintet, is back Stateside on a tour to promote their new album ``Blue Sky Mining.'' Riding the crest of their 1987 platinum success, ``Diesel and Dust,'' along with critical and popular acclaim for ``Blue Sky,'' they have graduated from clubs and theaters to amphitheaters and arenas.

Oil's image is largely - yes, largely - personified by lead singer Peter Garrett, rock's most striking and formidable front man. Standing 6 ft., 6 in. and shaven-headed, Garrett twitches, flinches, and darts across the stage as if animated by every riff of an electric guitar. His towering presence and humorous stage antics are a representative blending of Oil's hard edges and easy-going friendliness.

The Oil message is a sometimes cynical, sometimes optimistic protest against apathy - apathy about the rights of indigenous peoples, workers, and the forgotten victims of war, and about pollution and nuclear weapons. The music is a raucous combination of rhythms and punches that leap spontaneously in different directions, then suddenly give way to a sweet piano melody or forgiving acoustic guitar pick.

On stage, Midnight Oil wastes no time getting down to business. The group opened last week's show at Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts in Mansfield, Mass., with ``King of the Mountain,'' ``Blue Sky Mining's'' most upbeat and lighthearted track. During the hour-and-45-minute, two-encore performance, the Oils did the best songs from their four US-released albums.

They play with intensity and concentration as raw as the garbage-can-lid cymbals on Rob Hirst's drums. Yet they stay remarkably true to the original recordings.

Not just any band can whip a crowd into a frenzy over the cause of indigenous peoples in Australia and elsewhere. But such was the case when the Oils hit songs like ``Beds Are Burning'' and ``Warakurna'' from the ``Diesel'' album. These songs are ``about our equivalent of your native Americans,'' said Garrett. ``They managed to look after our land and rivers for 40,000 years. ... Maybe we could learn from them.''

Arresting and blatantly demanding, ``Beds Are Burning'' took the band from college radio to the top of the US charts a few years ago. With a wry Aussie accent, Garrett sings, ``The time has come/ To say fair's fair/ To pay the rent/ To pay our share/ The time has come/ A fact's a fact/ It belongs to them/ Let's give it back.''

In ``River Runs Red,'' a more atmospheric crowd-pleaser off ``Blue Sky Mining,'' the Oils looks at pollution and development through the eyes of a child. ``So you cut all the tall trees down/ You poisoned the sky and the sea/ You've taken what's good from the ground/ But you left precious little for me/ You remember the flood and the fall/ We remember the light on the hill/ There should be enough for us all/ But the dollar is driving us still.''

So who are the Oils, and what's with the political grind? As drummer Hirst recently told the Boston Globe, Midnight Oil is ``six people who are vasty overeducated.'' (Manager Gary Morris is considered a sixth member of the band.) Before joining the band, Garrett was a lawyer. He has also run for the Australian Senate, is president of the Australian Conservation Commission, and surfs.

Behind the indicting and demanding lyrics, then, are people willing to get their hands dirty, to get in the trenches for the issues they sing about. Angry hope - not anger alone - drives them.

Drummer Rob Hirst and guitarist Jim Moginie formed Midnight Oil in 1977 while in college. They still do most of the writing.

Live, Oil is a maximum-decibel band in the tradition of The Who and The Clash. The vitality and intensity of their music, though convincing on records, is more suited to the stage. And while Garrett fronts the act, he does not overshadow the others. Guitarist Martin Rotsey and Jim Moginie often bounce riffs and chord-progressions back and forth. And ``Bones'' Hillman lays down as many vocal harmonies as he does bass lines.

Touring with Midnight Oil is fellow Aussie band Hunters & Collectors.

Upcoming concert dates include stops tonight in Atlanta; June 8 in Chicago; June 12 in Houston; June 19 and 20 in Los Angeles; June 23 in Berkeley, Calif.; and June 26 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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