Max Savage – ERN: Australia’s Greatest Hoax @ Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Space Theatre 24/6/2021

After being online last year due to Covid the Adelaide Cabaret Festival is thankfully back for 2021 with an excellent lineup curated by Artistic Director, Alan Cumming. Max Savage has presented shows at the Festival in 2019 as well as performing at many gigs and festivals in Adelaide over the years. This year he is presenting a world premiere musical piece that takes inspiration from the notorious Ern Malley Affair where two hoaxers created a fictitious body of modernist poetry which was subsequently published in the literary journal Angry Penguins in the 1940s. There is an exhibition about the affair in the foyer of the Space Theatre but I believe that the show was still incredible even if you knew nothing of the back story.

Beginning with an ominous drone and a gradual reveal of the motionless band obscured in darkness on stage, this was more than a straightforward live show akin to that Max Savage has done previously at the Festival. Alongside Max was his brother and collaborator on this piece, Ross McHenry who was playing electronics, bass, and guitar, The other musicians were Max’s regular guitarist Django Rowe, sax wizard Adam Page, violin by Julian Ferrato, and Steve Neville on drums. This excellent group of musicians have been presenting shows and have supported many artists in Adelaide for many years. It was excellent to see that each musician was given the chance to shine tonight.

Thematically on par with the concept of cut and paste that lead to the construction of the Ern Malley poems by borrowing from previous works, so too does this performance during which Max borrows from his musical forebears and consolidates these influences into a somewhat abstract song and instrumental cycle, something quite unlike anything he has done before. In doing so this performance actually serves as an appropriate primer of Max’s stylistically diverse output for the uninitiated as well as adding something for those already in the know.

The music was performed without explanation or context, unadorned by Max’s hallmark banter between songs and introductions which may have detracted from the proceedings and flowed almost as a single piece encompassing and referencing sources including Van Morrison, Steely Dan, Miles Davis’ mutant jazz-funk and Tom Waits, without being too overt with Max’s diverse influences.

In parallel with the music, Josh Baldwin painted, constructing a piece throughout the performance that was a pastiche of Fred Williams, Tom Roberts, or Brett Whitely with perhaps a wink to Sidney Nolan given the lone figure amongst the abstract surrealist landscape. This tied in well with the performance as a whole given Max’s lyrical content and in particular, the lyric: “last night I had a vision but it was you that gave it oil painted life”.

When the show ended Max and co received a standing ovation from the very adoring crowd. I would love to see this show performed again one day as well as wishing it be released as an album. Regardless I look forward to seeing Max and his band of brothers performing in various projects around town in the near future.

Adelaide Cabaret Festival Review By Richard De Pizzol

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