The story of Ern Malley is one of malice imitating art and Max Savage’s ERN is one of maddened, passionate frenzy co-opting art.
This enjoyably nightmarish and jazz/blues-soaked, gravelly-operatic indulgence is an excruciating spectacle of art from many dimensions.
On one hand, we have singer/songwriter/band wrangler, Max Savage, holding centre stage and performing his exquisite songs in the key of despair with his bottle of red wine and music spirit-possessed limbs, while on the other hand, we have realist oil painter, Josh Baldwin, absorbed in his large canvas.
What do these artists have in common?
They both make no attempt to connect with the audience, they are lost in their interior worlds, and, secondly, they both squeeze and command their “tools”; Baldwin blends and strokes his paints, Savage corrals his band members through yelling and eyeing them off.
Savage, in particular, seems obsessed and possessed by some dark spirit of creativity throughout this show. His Joe Cocker-esque left hand shakes and flails about, while he strives to hold onto his hallmark powerhouse of a voice, like a cowboy holding onto the caboose of a runaway train.
Do we leave enlightened about the Ern Malley legend?
No. We don’t.
In fact, as the program says, this show is simply “inspired by” the Ern Malley affair, and that clever nuance plants a seed of curiosity.
Are Savage and composer, Ross McHenry, embodying the spirit of the Ern Malley hoaxers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart? Were our cabaret artists treating us the way McAuley and Stewart treated the hoodwinked editor of The Angry Penguin, Max Harris, by producing a tight, well-produced experience of snippets of lyric and music, much the same as the fictitious Malley’s poems contained fragments of wordplay and language that pleased seasoned minds?
The musical program was a masterclass in Avant Garde-leaning fusion rock, jazz, blues, and country, while Baldwins painting was at once both impressionistic and realistic.
ERN is a show that will sate your desire for intense, sublime, musical ecstasy, while leaving you none the wiser about its namesake, Ern Malley. And why should it? Malley was artifice that entertained and Savage shows we’re up for another round, if the semi standing ovation was anything to judge this by.
As Ern Malley “wrote”:
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others.