SYDNEY — Australia is in the midst of a crisis. With the government unwilling to offer either moral or substantial financial support, and climate change being turned into a political talking point rather than a global emergency, the burden has fallen to the public to prop up those impacted by this devastation. In the age-old tradition of musicians banding together to raise much needed funds for humanitarian crises, Fire Fight Australia was thrown together in a rush. Tickets were capped at a reasonable US $68 for the best seats, and 70,000 people promptly rushed the website and sold out Sydney’s ANZ Stadium in less time than given to a Brian May guitar solo to see Queen with Adam Lambert, Alice Cooper, Five Seconds of Summer, k.d. lang and more.
A misplaced strain of patriotism ran through the entire event on Sunday night (Feb. 16), as if Australia were the proud host nation of the Olympics, rather than a country reeling from a tragedy that displaced thousands, destroyed 13 million acres of land, and killed 34 people. Nevertheless, international eyes were on a number of Australian artists who had never received this level of exposure: Delta Goodrem, Guy Sebastian and Jessica Mauboy were made for such a format with their short, family-friendly sets, and each of them stepped up to deliver world-class performances.
Viewing such an event through an international lens, it became apparent how singular the Australian music landscape is. One can only imagine how baffling the wholehearted inter-generational love shown for 71-year-old Daryl Braithwaite was as he was greeted like Springsteen, treated like a teen idol, and able to indulge mass sing-alongs for beloved anthems that never made it off the continent.
Baker Boy, an Indigenous rapper, singer, dancer, and Young Australian of the Year in 2019, was a clear highlight of the early afternoon; no doubt international A&R scouts will be circling him before too long. 5 Seconds Of Summer are already an American success, having landed three albums in the top spot on the Billboard 200. They were raised playing stadiums and as such were, perhaps surprisingly, the perfect warm-up act for Queen — though such a term diminishes the impact they had in fifteen short minutes.
The running order seemed thrown together helter skelter, with the usual ramping up to headliners seemingly non-existent. It was no doubt due to scheduling conflicts — most of the international artists were cramming their 20-minute sets between their own local touring calendar — but there was something unsettling about seeing Alice Cooper wield his messianic horror show shtick while the sun was still beating down.
The irony of him deriding teachers and declaring “School’s Out,” claiming to be a member of the Department of Youth and singing earnestly about being 18 was not at all lost on the younger contingency, who seemed bewildered by this septuagenarian in ring-leader garb, swinging a sword and rebelling against the adults. By the time he sang “Poison,” everyone was more than won over.
Queen were a clear highlight, cannily reprising their historical 22-minute Live Aid set, with the same running order and many of the same rock moves. Although Adam Lambert has settled impressively into his role as Queen’s frontman (he even rocks a mustache similar to Freddie Mercury’s these days), it was an appearance by Mercury that stole the show, via a video of his call and response crowd work at Live Aid. As the audience belted back his a cappella refrains, the 35 years since Live Aid collapsed in on themselves.
The evening peaked with Queen, as many assumed it would. A wildly redundant live cross to Michael Buble’s concert in Melbourne was a startling comedown after such an electrifying Queen set, and the crowd rushing the exit gates matched the push towards the front only half an hour earlier. A subdued set by the otherwise sublime k.d. lang only dampened the mood further, and by the time John Farnham and Olivia Newton-John appeared for the evening’s finale, the pressure had been let out of the tires.
Not to worry. Despite the 70,000-strong crowd, this event was made for TV, and was a huge success overall. Fire Fight raised over $9 million, and was a tremendous exchange and display of good will. It was an unashamed feel-good event, although the constant spruiking of t-shirts throughout the day seemed overwrought. For what it purported to represent, Fire Fight seemed strangely apolitical, and those present were left with the feeling that it was the music, rather than the message, that people most listened to.