When I was a kid – and again, now that I have kids – one of our household literary staples was Would You Rather by John Burningham, a collection of unpleasant hypotheticals to test the reader’s resolve. One of these was to ponder if you’d rather your Dad did a dance at school, or your Mum had a row in a café.

A pleasant confluence of both those scenarios, I suppose, might be akin to attending a show by Midnight Oil: a neat distillation of barely restrained invective and murder (of a kind) on the dance floor.

Still, if Peter Garrett – at nearly 68 – can still pull off his signature moves so effortlessly, he was but one of the many at King Rodney Park on Saturday night – reinforcing my long-held view that one of WOMADelaide’s primary purposes is to encourage SA’s over-50s to dance like nobody’s watching.

Which on this occasion was no mean feat, with audience members informed by organisers that – under the event’s COVID management plan – they could dance like their earth ain’t turning… as long as they did so directly in front of their allotted plastic chair.

This edict was policed with zero tolerance by an array of COVID marshals, whose zeal occasionally tumbled into the over-officious. My nine-year-old son, for instance, was firmly instructed not to venture less than a foot from his aisle-side chair, despite the fact the several rows of adults in front of him had – quite rightly – risen from their seats as the main act entered the stage, obscuring his view.

He told me later he watched the balance of the performance on the large screen stage-left. A visually-impaired lady a few rows in front was made to stand straddling her sleeping guide dog. Others in the crowd were less compliant.

A late-middle-aged fellow across the aisle from us, sporting a Midnight Oil T-shirt and Peter FitzSimons-style bandanna, revelled in remonstrating with the COVID marshals, repeatedly being sent back to his seat before – bless him – quickly resuming his enthusiastic gyrations up the aisle.

It was a bat’s squeak of mild civil disobedience befitting the Oils frontman himself – at least until his late-career turn as a compliant member of one of modern Australia’s more chaotic federal governments.

On this occasion, even Garrett appeared bemused by the whole display: “You’re very careful out here, I tell you that,” he told the Adelaide audience with a shake of the head as he noted the strict seating arrangements.

Still, better a COVID-marshalled WOMADelaide than no WOMADelaide at all – even if the result is a dramatic departure from the format long associated with the event.

What is traditionally a musical buffet is now served instead as a three-course meal, with MRLN x RKM [former Port and Glenelg player Marlon Motlop and MC collaborator and fellow footballer Rulla-Kelly Mansell] as the appetiser, an entrée of the ever-sublime Vika & Linda Bull – complete with a stirring “Bridge Over Troubled Water” finale in honour of the late music industry pioneer Michael Gudinski – and the Oils the main course.

The always-sublime Vika and Linda Bull. Photo: Tony Lewis

As such, it’s really more A Day On The Green than WOMADelaide but, as Garrett alluded to, international travel restrictions imposed due to a global pandemic are kind of a fundamental obstacle to putting on a genuine world music festival.

“We’re doing two shows [including a Monday night rendition of last year’s Makarrata Project with a roll-call of First Nations collaborators] because they couldn’t get many international people to come and play,” he told the crowd.

Saturday’s performance, however, was a more traditional “greatest hits and other bits” salute, and it didn’t disappoint.

There’s sometimes a hint of melancholy tinging the joy of seeing an old favourite for the first time well beyond what might be considered their “prime”, but Midnight Oil somehow manages to eschew this – partly because, I suspect, they were never quite “hip” to begin with.

Over 40-plus years they always seem to have maintained – against all odds, really – a slightly subversive aesthetic infusing adventurous Australian rock staples that remain at once timeless and timely. Moreover, they can pull it off because Garrett is as charismatic a frontman as ever, if you can banish the memory of the besuited Rudd minister defending the decisions of types he spent his musical career castigating.

And not to be reductive, but at 67 he looks (at least from 20-odd rows back) no different than at any time since the 1980s, when he first ran for parliament for the Nuclear Disarmament Party (cruelled, ironically, by Labor preferences); and he does, after all, have the considerable advantage of a perennial hairstyle (or lack thereof) that can never go out of style.

Or into it, come to that.

His voice retains the urgency decreed by his lyrics, even if his vocal range is, understandably, not quite what it used to be: a limitation (mostly) seamlessly covered by his bandmates’ backing vocals and the presence of guest singers Leah Flanagan and Liz Stringer.

Beyond that, the only sign of Garrett’s advancing age was when he fluffed the lyrics of one of the band’s signature anthems – “Blue Sky Mine”, which arrived second on the setlist after “Read About It” – launching into the bridge instead of the first chorus.

Then came “Put Down That Weapon”, before the first of Garrett’s political pronouncements of the evening – a predictable (and well-received) critique of Donald Trump (“the worst president we’ve ever seen… even a movie couldn’t have made him look a bigger dickhead”).

The former member for Kingsford Smith also later laid a gentle jibe on SA’s current Liberal Premier, musing as he stepped onto a wobbly front-of-house speaker that it was “moving like Steven Marshall’s political career”. But given the very fact South Australians were able to gather in the Park Lands for a major musical event, this sledge didn’t land as smoothly.

As he and his longtime bandmates – drummer Rob Hirst slamming the skins with theatrical zeal while Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey’s guitar work swung between taut riffs and shimmering layers of sound – powered through the set, Garrett also threw in eclectic bon mots about their host city. Asking the crowd to find its voice, the singer exclaimed at one point: “Just imagine you’re [ordering] a souvlaki down the other end of Hindley Street.”

Having had a dig at various political conservatives, he also (inadvertently perhaps) targeted the Liberal-backing Hurley family by remarking on having driven past “a scungy-looking pub” on the way to town “that looks awfully like the Arkaba”.

Midnight Oil had the crowd on their feet in King Rodney Park. Photo: Tony Lewis

In front of a simple backdrop of what appeared to be a faux-rusty-corrugated iron water-tank, the band whipped through an array of favourites that had the crowd dancing in the aisles (not literally, though – the COVID marshals wouldn’t allow it).

“Kosciusko”, “Redneck Wonderland”, “Truganini”, “US Forces” and an enchanted meditation on “Short Memory” – “the big changes are made by those who don’t forget”, Garrett urged – led into “Forgotten Years” and, of course, “Beds Are Burning”. At the end of which the frontman declared the show over, before somewhat oddly launching into not one but two more tracks (“Best of Both Worlds” and “Power and the Passion”).

That presaged the obligatory fake encore, after which the Oils returned to commit a sparse, emotion-charged rendition of “One Country” to their recently-departed bandmate Bones Hillman, who died of cancer in November, aged 62.

The band, burnished by their backing duo and a horn ensemble, then farewelled their first night at WOMADelaide 2021 with a rousing revival of “The Dead Heart”.

The cynic in me had been half-expecting this performance to be reminiscent of that old 1980s Castrol commercial: namely, Oils ain’t Oils. But delightfully, they still are.

And despite his restricted view, my nine-year-old gave the performance perhaps his highest endorsement: he insisted on listening to the band’s recordings in the car on the way home.

So despite the curtailed event, if it’s a choice of seeing them while all-but tethered to your plastic chair, and not seeing them at all… well, that sounds like a scenario out of John Burningham’s much-loved book.

And I know which I’d rather.

WOMADelaide is presenting two further concert nights in King Rodney Park, with tonight’s line-up headlined by Tash Sultana, and Monday’s featuring Midnight Oil and First Nations collaborators performing Makarrata Live.

Read InReview’s review of Friday night’s concert and further WOMADelaide 2021 coverage here.

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