Confessions of a Midnight Oil Sideman: Two weeks to go!

Australian Jack Howard, who rose to fame with the band Hunters & Collectors, is on a year-long world tour with Aussie rockers Midnight Oil.

Photo courtesy of Sharon Ryan

Boy, I’m going to miss this. With just a few shows to go on The Great Circle tour, I already feel a small splinter. We’re back in Melbourne and the lads are in a hotel while I’m at home again; in Sydney, it will be vice-versa. I’m out of the bubble. I miss the pack! I miss the hotel breakfasts where we all slowly straggle in to beat the 10am last call.

Having a bleary-eyed natter about the previous night’s show – cracking version of Lucky Country, eh?; or did you see that guy down the front? – had his phone to his face all night – no clapping, no smiling, just filming it all; yeah, and I had this girl right in front of me, there with her dad and she looked sooo bored the whole night.

It’s eye-opening how much you notice the front rows of the crowd from on-stage and how they can affect you – the people who know the words to Ned Kelly and Safety Chain Blues and Burnie; and the casuals who just know the chorus of Beds. (With H&C, it was Throw Your Arms and Grail, then back to their seats.) It can be quite distracting, your eyes tend to pick the same person out again and again – in a good way or bad.

And how on earth did that guy get on stage last night? Great lunk of a drunk who proceeded to collapse on stage like a beached whale leaving poor Pat and Alex to drag him away.

Last Saturday night, we played a huge show to 20,000 freezing but happy punters at Hanging Rock. It was a much-anticipated show by band and crowd alike and the band, despite the extreme cold and a variety of ailments, seemed to raise itself to another level. The first part of the show was just electric, the early set trio of big songs Read About It, Ned Kelly and Stand In Line, just stunning. We had a young singer, Yirrimal, join us on stage for a great version of Treaty. He is the son of Witiyana from Yothu Yindi. He ripped it up and loved getting out onto the front of stage ramp – a star in the making.

It was a tough night for me coming off and on – warm, cold, cool, cold, freezing trumpet and flugelhorn, desperately trying to stay in tune. I have a keyboard glockenspiel arpeggio part to play at the end of Put Down That Weapon and I could barely get my frozen fingers moving for it. We have the H&C Horns Of Contempt – Jeremy Smith on French horn, Michael Waters on trombone and myself – back in black for most of this last run. A big fat symphonic sound that suits The Oils’ epics well. We were all madly trying to stay in tune in the cold but I think it went well for the first show with no soundcheck.

This week’s shows at The Bowl have been much more survivable and the horns have had a better time of it. First show set highlights included ripper versions of Bus To Bondi and Both Worlds. Monday night had THE best sing-a-long crowd for the tour. It’s been great to finally bring the tour home (for me) to Melbourne; and for family and friends to see it for themselves, rather than just living it vicariously through gig photos and updates and a series of tantalising hotel bathrobe shots.

The team around the tour has grown and grown and we now have an inordinate swarming number of behind-the-scenes crew. There’s the team that does all of the filming for the big image screens either side of stage – I share an area with them on my side of stage and they’re totally into it, yelling, “CAMERA 1 – get that guitar solo, CAMERA 4 – Bones has gone wandering again, CAMERA 3 – that handsome horn section is playing, get their good sides!” We have all sorts of lighting riggers and assistants and secondary front of house and foldback p.a. guys – young blokes sharp as tacks with knowledge to burn; and of course, the legendary Dugald McAndrew as stage manager. Truck drivers, runners, caterers, Dave and his teams on merch, Frontier Touring, security, management (who have done an incredible job) – it’s huge!

The core team that has been with us the whole way has been very special. Ben on stage-right looks after my keyboard/horn/percussion set up but particularly Jim’s elaborate sound laboratory. So many guitar and keyboard changes – they’ve developed a symbiotic and intuitive relationship. Young Pat on stage-left, looking like a rock star himself, takes care of Bones and Martin with just as many guitar changes and pedals to deal with. Jim and Martin reckon these two have been the best guitar team they’ve ever worked with. Then there’s Clem, crouched zen-like beside Rob, his indispensable right-hand man looking after his drums, that microphone that mysteriously pivots around for Rob’s backing vocals and the sampler for loops in Dead Heart, etc. Kenno and Col are low-key seen-it-all uber-professionals on foldback and front of house sound with brilliant ears. They have critical jobs and they both pull immaculate sounds of clarity and detail with a minimum of fuss. Young Steve on lights is a wizard. There are still songs that crop up in the set that he doesn’t know but the large-scale scenes that he sets are spectacular and his timing on songs like Only The Strong is super sharp. And then there’s Alex, our phlegmatic Scottish production manager, and Sean, our impossibly patient tour manager. Both men have job descriptions and workloads that beggar belief and they get on with them and solve problems with high-level skills every day in every way. These guys are all so important. The Great Circle tour is such a large-scale operation but it still boils down to the business of getting the band on and off stage every second night and making its life and its performances as seamless, as easy and as great as possible. Hats off to you all.

As a footnote to this one, we’ve just gotten the news that Jim is going to play on despite his terrible injury on Wednesday at The Bowl. We drink a Redbreast single malt whiskey to you, Jim. Various news reports today speculated on the idea of a replacement… There’s stupid and then there’s stupider. What a ludicrous idea.

If you missed them, read Part 1 of Jack’s blog here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here and Part 5 here.

The final Australian leg of the Midnight Oil Great Circle tour kicked off in Alice Springs on Monday, October 2nd and ends in Sydney on November 17.