Monday, May 12, 2014

Reflections on the Canberra "Oil Change" Midnight Oil tribute shows

In 2013 George asked Chris and I if we'd be interested in doing a Midnight Oil show. We'd successfully performed Springsteen's "Nebraska" album in its entirety as well as playing a few other small gigs. We were all keen and with George managing to swing the services of Matt (keys/guitars) and Joel (drums) we rehearsed hard, added Callum on trumpet and played two shows in May of that year. Adding Tim into the band as our sound engineer for these shows was the start of something very special for us all.

We were slated to do another show but for a few very good reasons it wasn't to be.

I think what I want to write about here is about my journey as a guitar player as well as about the band - it's all inextricably linked so you as the reader will get a bit of both.

Let's start with Midnight Oil. They are a legendary Australian band for any number of reasons. I'd played a couple of their songs (Read About It, Sometimes) in previous bands. When you start to deconstruct their music and work out who should play what as well as looking at chord charts you quickly come to the realisation that this is not 3 chord rock and roll. The Oils are real musicians who write songs that are often far from straightforward. They use horns and keyboards a lot as well as guitars and their drummer's singing is an essential part of their sound. Nothing is easy.

What made the rehearsal process for 2013 so positive was the rest of the band. They didn't bat an eyelid or grumble when I simply couldn't play many of the pieces. They played on and let me come to terms with what needed to be done. Chris and Matt shouted chords or notes at me until I got them right and convinced my fingers that these weird shapes were actually manageable. I also quietly tried learning where notes actually are on the fretboard rather than always relying on shapes and patterns. In 2014 I'm still working on that.

I'll admit that for the two "Burning The Midnight Oil" shows in 2013 that I was more than nervous and I didn't do much on stage other than stand, play and hope that I didn't make too many mistakes - it was really, really difficult. The other issue I had was being quite unhappy with some of my guitar gear.

That all sounds very negative but in reality the shows were hugely successful. The punters were happy as were the venue owners.

Fast forward to the end of the year when the majority of the issues that meant we couldn't play much for a while had been resolved. George had been away in Tingha writing a book about the "Diesel and Dust" album as well as working with the kids up there. He came home energised and with a mission; to take the band to the bush. We were all keen to go and the tour was planned for July 2014.

At the same time we agreed that we had unfinished business with some Midnight Oil tracks and booked a return to Vivaldi's for two shows this year. The band are also booked in to play at the Dirrum Dirrum conference here in Canberra in August (after the tour).

George massaged the setlists into place and sent us off to rehearse. There were five new songs to get ready as well as most of the ones we'd done previously. For fans, the new songs are; Best of Both Worlds, Kosciusko, Arctic World, Blue Sky Mine and Dreamworld. Of these, Blue Sky Mine proved the biggest challenge with tons of different guitar sounds, a harmonica intro for Chris to learn and Tim playing bass on the keyboard. There's no doubting that it took a long time to come together and even at our dress rehearsal it took us three or four goes to get the song started.

Let's talk guitars for a minute. Prior to my time in Junk Sculpture I was very much the rhythm guitar player. I've been fortunate enough to play with a range of excellent lead guitarists and I've always been happy doing that. This show was so different for me. When you're playing lead bits and pieces there is nowhere to hide! There are licks and phrases from these songs that I've played over and over and still fall over from time to time. The solo from "Hercules" is a classic example. It's not particularly difficult and it sounds great but there's a moment in every live show where I forget one note, lose the pattern in my head, and have to fudge it. Of course, in the comfort of my lounge room I always hit it perfectly!

The other thing about guitars in these shows is that there is a huge range of sounds. It isn't like playing a Stones or AC/DC show where you can set your amp and play all night with the same tone.

NOTE: If you don't want to read all about my guitar nerdiness then fast forward to where you see **** on the page.

The first issue I had was my Marshall amplifier. I'd had it for ages and to tell the truth I'd never been all that happy with it. To cut a long story short I agonised over a replacement for ages. Eventually I settled on a MESA Boogie and so far it's not too bad. I discovered at the shows that being able to play it at volume is really, really good.

Guitars were also an issue. I love my Burns Steer but I needed a second guitar I could rely on. My Gibson Joan Jett Melody Maker wasn't what I'd hoped it would be and my old red Strat, well, it needed a lot of work. After being paid an amazing amount of money for a very short gig I took Zoƫ on a guitar hunt with me and ended up trading the Melody Maker for a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. It's now my #1 guitar.

So, with guitars and the amplifier good to go my thoughts turned to effects pedals. There are three main sounds I used for the shows:

First up is just a straight clean one with just some reverb. For things like the verses of "Read About It", "Capricornia" and "Warakurna" it's all you need. The graphic eq on the MESA amp means that I can roll the high end off and almost have an acoustic guitar sound in places. Using the guitar's volume control means that I can keep it restrained or, on full with some hard strumming, get a nice gentle break up. 

Second are the jangly noises. I use a combination of an MXR Black Label Chorus and a RedWitch Tremelo to get those sounds. There's a Hotone EKO Delay in there too for the "Blue Sky Mine" intro but whilst it is OK at home or in a rehearsal, I found that it was a bit harsh at gig volume. More investigation to do on that!

And of course there's the driven sound for things like "Hercules", "Best of Both Worlds" and "Sometimes". The MESA amp's second channel, on the blues setting seemed to do the job well. It roared if I hit the guitar hard without being harsh or fizzy. I have two overdrive pedals in my chain as well (Boss OD-3 and a JK Pedals modded OD-2). The OD-2 is set for my searing lead tone and the OD-3 was a backup really in case I decided the amp's drive wasn't enough. At gig volume I didn't need the OD-3.

The final trick is the Cry Baby Wah Classic. It's only used in this show in "Blue Sky Mine" and right at the end of "Beds Are Burning" but I have a feeling I'll use it a lot more in other shows. 

My latest addition is the Boss TU-3 tuner pedal. It's awesome. The lights on it are so bright I'm sure the that International Space Station guys knew that I was in tune. It's also an effective "mute" button and can deliver power to other pedals.

Rehearsals for the 2014 were a bit light on. It's hard to get 7 people in the same place at the same time. Thankfully for me I had a couple of sneaky rehearsals with Chris as well as one where George bashed his lounge in lieu of drums! I think for any band, being able to sit down in small groups and work things out quietly is really, really important.

The other thing I did was to take a guitar away on holidays with me. With the addition of the iRig HD which the family gave me for my birthday, I can rehearse with great tones through headphones via my iPhone or iPad - it's awesome.

I think our first real rehearsal was at George's place in January. To be fair, we were rusty. We knew most of the songs and could bluff our way through but it wasn't great. I know that H was worried. The good thing here was that we all recognised which bits needed work. Around this time H, Chris and I with Joel guesting on drums, played two other shows. This was fun but I'll admit that trying to learn the songs for those as well as the Oils tunes meant that I didn't do either particularly well.

Later on we organised to play a rehearsal "show" to a select group of invitees. This was great. Again, it highlighted any areas that needed more work but also allowed us to perform in front of people who were very much onside. Playing at gig volume is a very different proposition than rehearsing so it was good to be able to try and get the balance right before the shows with paying customers!

Finally, last week, it was gig time. Show number 1 was excellent. Personally I was nervous because my family were there but other than that I think it went well. Tim really hit his straps not only doing sound but playing keyboards from up the back of the room. There was a huge amount of energy in the room and after the gig I think we were all well and truly spent. The only thing that wasn't great was having to pack up all the gear knowing that we'd be back the next week!

We've got this "fan" called Mark. He's been to all our Oils shows and even the closed rehearsal. After the first show he asked us if we could add an older Oils song back into the set for the show on May 10th. We'd dropped "No Time For Games" after last year but when your fan asks so nicely....well....why not. We ran through it at soundcheck and, for a difficult song (it's in 7/4 in places) I thought it was OK.

Show number 2 came along very quickly and I have to say that it was even better than the first one. Again, it was sold out but for some reason both the band and the crowd were in for a big night. Personally I was at the stage where I really only needed the charts for a prompt every now and then and that was pretty cool I think. We had only a few minor hiccups and maybe the band only noticed most of them I'd think. At one stage I'm sure that there were more audience members on stage singing that people in the band but that was a lot of fun. 

And then it was over. Beds had burned and we'd been driven down to Alice Springs.

Next up we go on the road and that's sure to be a whole other story as well as the final chapter of George's book. Will we fit all the gear in the van? Will people actually want to listen to us play? How many of the band members snore? We'll find out soon.

But why are we doing all this? The first reason is that we like to play music. It doesn't matter if it's the Oils tunes, H's originals, something obscure or some simple rock tunes; it's fun. But there is a more serious reason. The Oils said that "no-one goes outback, that's that" and it resonated with George. Through his work he's been supporting a programme called "Crossing The Divide". It endeavours to get young people back into the education system and give them some skills and the chance to get a job. Centered around Bundarra in NSW it's where the band is going to play. It's our chance to bring what we do to other people and support them in our own way.

Watch this space for tour updates later in the year and you'll definitely find out who snores the most.

Thanks to everyone who has supported the band so far.

And on a personal note; thanks to my family who I'm sure are over listening to Midnight Oil for a while!


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