Adelaide singer-songwriter Max Savage is a young man of diverse and complex musical interests. Despite a fairly decent canon of self-written songs, last August he decided to perform a cover gig of an entire album. And not just any album at that. Savage chose what is, in musicians’ terms, almost Biblical: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
Consistently rated on critics’ and musicians’ “top ten albums”, mystical in quality, and regarded more as a song-cycle than just another album, this was a project at once both presumptuous and deferential.
And he and his coterie of musicians, including the wonderful Adam Page, pulled it off so well that many who were there (including this interviewer), talk about it being one of the best gigs they have ever been to.
So what’s better than an Astral Weeks gig? TWO Astral Weeks gigs! Savage is set to reprise this performance for the Fringe, this coming Saturday 20 February, at Jive, Hindley Street. We spoke to him as he was flying from rehearsal to recording studio.
So why does a songwriter decide to do an entire tribute performance?
When you play music, one of the many reasons you do it is that you want to have an effect on people: you want to make people feel things. And as you learn to write songs and perform, you find that there are short-cuts to having that effect. I always think genre is an amazing short-cut because as soon as someone hears a particular set of tones, it transports them instantly to a particular place. In my life, albums have been really important at marking points in my life. So last year, on a whim really, we decided to do Astral Weeks at the Wheatsheaf, not really knowing what it was going to bring, just because we loved the album. And we were blown away because it sold out within two weeks, and it had a really deep and quite profound effect on a lot of the people there. So many people have asked us if we could do it again.
Aside from its iconic status, Astral Weeks can’t be an easy album to perform. It was recorded almost as an improvisation, with New York session musicians being thrown into a studio with a young chap called Van Morrison that none of them had even heard of. How difficult is it to recreate that sound?
It is a very improvised album. It’s very loose. You can even hear mistakes in it, such as parts where the double-bass plays a wrong note, or the drums came in at the wrong time. That’s how they made records in those days. But I think that gives you a lot of scope to explore what I think is the most extraordinary thing about this album, which is the words. The stream of consciousness.
I think in pop music we don’t really do “interpretation”. If you’re a classical musician, then that is what you do. That’s one of the platforms on which classical music is built. And I actually think that in pop music now we have a rich enough history, and a rich enough palette to play with, that the power of interpretation is something we can play with. Ani DiFranco once said “a recording should just be a recording”. Morrison’s recording is just a snapshot.
The August gig turned out to be a small sensation. How surprised were you at that?
We thought that people would like the music, but we didn’t expect such an emotional reaction to the entire experience. I think for a lot of people, when that record came out, it was such a background to parties and long nights drinking cheap wine and debating till the small hours. For a huge amount of people it brings back a flood of memories. Music is able to tap into those neural pathways.
Is it the same line-up as last year?
We don’t have Adam Page this time, but we have Jason McMahon, who is an incredible, naturally gifted, saxophonist. We also have a really young double-bass player called Dylan Kirchner who is something really special as well. And then it’s a similar line-up.
Because last year was so amazing, are you worried that you’ve se t the bar too high for yourselves?
Well I think it’s just going to be different. And because it’s the Fringe, people are open-minded about what’s going to happen. A good song will take on the appropriate meaning for the time and the place. No performance will ever be the same.
What is next for Max Savage after this?
We’ve got two albums coming out this year. True Believers will come out in April, and that’s 80s style Australian rock, kind of John Mellencamp meets Cold Chisel meets The Church. Then we have a jazz album coming out. All originals. Then we’re off to Europe for a few months, driving around in a 1960s 2CV, playing gigs.
Straight after our chat, Max had to take off back to the studio to keep doing what he does best: writing, playing and interpreting music.
Astral Weeks plays at Jive, Saturday 20th February at 7.30 pm, supported by Nick Bastiras doing Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate.
Interviewed by Tracey Korsten