Concert Review: Sound Relief

An overview of the massive Sound Relief benefit concert in Melbourne.

Author: Andrew Watt on Hey Hey My My.

Date: 15 March 2009.

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Attempting to review Sound Relief is almost irrelevant. Let’s face it, the sheer magnitude of “the event” more than outweighs any actual performance being given on the day.

But equally its hard to ignore the first performances in a number of years from three of Australia’s biggest bands Hunters & Collectors, Split Enz and Midnight Oil.

All three came from a great era of Australian rock music – all three (even the more theatrical Split Enz) cut their teeth in the unforgiving Australian pub circuit. All three had reputations as exceptional live acts.

And for all three this was probably their biggest live audience – none of them would have predicted as recently as February 6th that they would be playing at all , let alone playing to their biggest live audience of their careers.

Of course they weren’t the only three bands playing on the day. Earlier on I’d caught Gabriella Cilmi on television and was impressed by her voice. I’d been completely underwhelmed by Kings Of Leon and I was in transit to the MCG while Liam Finn’s set turned into a kind of Crowded House re-union.

I was only in transit to the MCG because watching the event on television became utterly unbearably due to the airheads doing the presenting on Channel V. They were abysmal and although the event was a ‘just’ rock concert it still deserved more respect than these twits babbling away like they were at a Big Brother eviction taping.

However by forcing me out of the house and into the rain those mindless morons did me a favour.

I caught a little bit of Jack Johnson who seemed genuine, laid back and in touch with the elements. I also watched a fair slice of Wolfmother who seemed genuine, intense and completely in sync with the elements. I was actually really impressed with Wolfmother, with their obvious retro stylings. You can see how they have become successful on the international festival circuit. They looked like a band that would be happy in front of the biggest possible crowd.

But for me it was the triumvirate of Hunnas, Split Enz and the Oils that held the most interest.

The Mark Seymour fronted H&C delivered a typically workman-like performance. Opening with a strong salvo of When The Rivers Run Dry, Do You See What I See and Blind Eye they sounded very together and rock solid. Seymour seemed to embrace the moment and showed the benefit of not having really taken a spell from live performance.

Say Goodbye was next and despite having a moment in the middle where it seemed to go a bit skewiff, undoubted power and dynamics emanating from the horns made it a fist pumping favourite. Seymour milked full value from the circumstance of playing Holy Grail in front of 80000 at the MCG.

Of course the real alternative national anthem Throw Your Arms Around Me was a crowd favourite and it occurred to me that this would have been a good song for “our Kylie” to have got up and sung along with. Everyone else has done it over the years. That would have been a far cooler moment than her well meaning but ultimately ill-conceived version of I Still Call Australia Home.

Hunters finished with one last act of defiance – playing their early trademark song The Slab, perhaps a fitting way to sign off. On the whole they were rock solid, impressive and did no harm to their legacy.

Split Enz on the other hard were more divisive. I’ve had a couple of people tell me that they found them a bit irritating but I cant really see that myself. I thought they were outstanding and actually enhanced my memories of them significantly.

What a great series of songs – they bookended their set with Shark Attack and I See Red, showing their frenzied power pop credentials. In between they offered a set of songs that were hard to fault. These were : Poor Boy, I Got You, Message To My Girl (which retrospectively is obviously a blueprint for the Crowded House evolution), Dirty Creature (which showcased Eddie Rayner’s keyboards), Six Months In A Leaky Boat (which featured the only whistling solo to be performed at the MCG) and History Never Repeats. Unburdened by the need to introduce a new album and limited to playing the hits in quick succession there was no way Split Enz could go wrong.

This set highlighted that Split Enz was really Tim Finn’s band and that Neil Finn was an added bonus. Finn T. ruled the roost on the night and while he does retain a slightly aloof and intellectual air he still is an engaging performer when he has songs of this quality to work with.

Midnight Oil have become a mass of conflicting emotions. It’s hard to reconcile that the lead singer is the Minister For The Environment and that he was on stage at a rock concert in Melbourne on the same day that the fallout from a huge environmental disaster was being felt in Queensland. It was hard to reconcile that he chose to change the words to Power And The Passion to remove the references to Pine Gap and explained this as making a “Sydney song” more relevant to Melbourne.

It was hard to reconcile an electric guitar version of the nation anthem in the middle of the set from a band that had always seemed more about intelligent defiance than flag waving nationalism.

Not that any of that seemed to worry many of the 80000 punters at the MCG.

Perhaps it was the fact that they had been looking forward to the Oils all day and they had survived the wind and rain and they had a lot of pent up energy but the crowds reaction to Midnight Oil was huge. They didn’t play the most user friendly set, opening with Redneck Wonderland, although few would deny the appeal of Read About It, Blue Sky Mining, Beds Are Burning and The Power And The Passion. Probably the biggest reaction though came for King Of The Mountain which had the crowd dancing from stage front to the back rows of the Olympic Stand. It was an amazing scene. Dead Heart was the other highlight.

To me there will never be an experience as good as seeing the raw and untamed Midnight Oil at small venues in the mid 80’s around the time of Head Injuries. Seeing them almost 25 years later in a stadium this size and in circumstances that by definition mean that they are compromised, well, it didn’t quite do it for me. But the bushfire benefit would have had limited effectiveness had it been held at a 800 capacity pub!

Closing with Best Of Both Worlds was a unpredictable but effective decision and after a completely unnecessary crowd rev up from the completely unnecessary stage announcer they closed with the equally surprising Sometimes. Obviously there was at least a dozen songs that could have been played but in an abbreviated set you have to get over the absentees pretty quickly.

What wasn’t surprising was that the band played supremely well. Rob Hirst certainly hasn’t forgotten how to play drums and the Mogine/Rotsey team has lost none of its venom. And Peter Garrett, although seeming slightly self conscious, sang in his distinctive way and pulled out those unique moves that had many crowd members instinctively mimicking.

In all honesty is was hard to fault them. Huge stadium shows are never going to be as intimate as the atmosphere that best suits Midnight Oil and given that they were first up from a long spell they certainly had a lot more charisma and power than just about any band of today. As a once off it was as good as you could expect.

Hopefully the experience of feeling the audiences emotion may have reminded Garrett of the reason why some much was hoped for when he entered politics. It’s not too late for him to make a difference in an arena even bigger than the MCG.