Homegrown rocker Max Savage is putting the “Adelaide’ in the 2019 Adelaide Cabaret Festival with a brand new show dedicated to our city.
His Cabaret Festival debut, Nobody Knows My Name, is a collection of original songs and poems about Adelaide. “It’s a series of scenes and impressions that come across in the city at night,” says Savage.
The show is something of a shared history, punctuated by feelings recognisable to anybody who lives here. But Savage, known for his gritty, soulful country and blues, admits he wasn’t always so focused on homegrown experiences.
“When I first started playing music, we imported this idea of Americana from the States,” he says. “We all put on cowboy shirts and wrote these honky-tonk ballads about heartache and loneliness. It’s like trying on a costume for size. But it’s quite a limiting space to be in.”
What felt suddenly freeing was the idea of writing from his own experiences – his own history, growing up in Adelaide.
It started out as a joke among friends – the idea of a musical set in Adelaide. Savage started writing and built up a collection of songs based on the experiences of locals like him – vignette-like narratives about the city at night, working in bars, playing music and serving last coffees at closing time.
When submissions opened for the Cabaret Festival, he saw the perfect opportunity to create a thematic work. He thinks it’s the ideal format for performing a concept work that captures an authentic Australian voice. “I’m just more and more comfortable with being the person that I am, and where I come from,” he says. “I could talk until the cows come home about my experiences in ’70s dive bars in Mississippi. But the fact is that I actually have no connection to that.”
What Savage does know – intimately – is life in Adelaide. He knows its streets, its bars and its people. He grew up here with older brother Ross McHenry, an award-winning jazz musician. But it’s not the musical family history you might expect. “Dad’s tone deaf,” he says, before adding that he loves the blues. “And Mum danced with The Australian Ballet in the ’70s.”
After playing in a “crap reggae band” in high school, Savage wrote some songs while living in Alice Springs at age 18. On his return to Adelaide he jumped into recording and took his first steps in what became a colourful and prolific musical career.
He’s not afraid of experimenting with different genres. But it’s not about rebranding – it’s just good fun. “People used to look at us like we were insane, because country music is the daggiest thing in the entire world. When I wrote an ’80s Australian power-rock album everyone just thought that that was the dumbest thing to do.
“Half the battle is explaining to people that you’re not going to do a bad job of it.”
But he hasn’t just done a good job – he’s been innovative in finding ways to keep creativity viable for artists and to reach music lovers. One of his most creative projects yet is The Family Bushdance, Adelaide’s first live-music podcast. The monthly show features local musicians, poets and a hefty dose of Savage’s on-stage charisma. It’s an effort to document the strong, close-knit community of artists in Adelaide and around Australia. In Nobody Knows My Name, he brings together some of those artists, from a cross-section of genres, including Kyrie Anderson, Kiah Gossner, Tom Kneebone, Brenton Foster and Django Rowe.
Nobody Knows My Name is on Sunday June 16 at 7pm in The Famous Spiegeltent at Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Tickets are available online.