Band on the Wall, Manchester
I blame Luke Haines. He wrote an article in Record Collector last year extolling the virtues of the later Soft Machine albums. The ones they made after Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers departed and they dropped the Psychedelic whimsy and went full tilt bonkers Art Rock/Weird Jazz. I’d previously never got past Soft 3 where it goes very noodly, but Luke persuaded me to delve into Soft 7 which is indeed a monstrously good record. I’ve been dipping into that later stuff since and finding gems in those later record like ‘Soft Space’, the relentless Moroder-esque disco stormer that ends ‘Alive and Well’, and curiosities like the ‘Bundles’ album. So Soft Machine are in town and it’s a real treat to get to hear some of this stuff played live.
The Softs might be one of the first bands to keep going through various line-up changes until they ended up still performing and recording with nobody left from the original group, and probably didn’t notice as they were engrossed in an extended solo. Tonight’s version of Soft Machine comprises the ferocious rhythm pals – the mighty John Marshall on drums who has played with them since 1971 and the great Roy Babbington who joined in 1973. There’s also a relative newbie John Etheridge who has been with them on and off for a mere 41 years. Not a bad vintage eh? They’re joined by the ridiculously talented Theo Travis on Sax, Flute and Organ. He’s got the right CV for this having played extensively with Robert Fripp, Steven Wilson and rather touchingly he appeared in later line-ups of Gong with founder member Daevid Allen which is a nice link to Soft Machine prehistory.
The band play two sets starting with the title track from ‘Bundles’. The sound at Band on the Wall is, as always, superb and I’m struck by what an impressively powerful sound they make from the get go. John Etheridge takes the role of MC. He’s warm and funny and he does a good job of putting the audience at ease which I think helps if you’re about to launch into some quite complex, extended pieces. I suspect there were a lot more laughs at this gig than you’d get at a mid-70s Softs gig and he admits to forgetting which albums certain tracks are from – as do I.
A version of this line-up has recorded new material as ‘Soft Machine Legacy’ so they play some of that stuff too which stands up pretty seamlessly with the older stuff. The set features quite a lot from the ‘Softs’ album too given that 3/4 of the line-up made that record. I’m particularly taken with the haunting ‘Tales of Taliesin’. We also get tracks from ‘Bundles’ like ‘The Boy Who Waved At Trains’, a majestic ‘Chloe and the Pirates’ from ‘Six’ and even ‘Out-bloody-rageous’ from ‘Three’ which dates back to when Robert Wyatt was still on the drums.
The band of course are all excellent musicians, and there is much soloing which I suppose is to be expected – particularly from John Etheridge, but there are lots of moments where they lock in together and create some magic – Roy Babbington hits the fuzz pedal, Etheridge applies some weird FX that make his guitar sound like Mike Ratledge doing an organ solo, Theo gets busy on Sax, and John Marshall starts getting almost into Jaki Liebezeit territory and it all sounds like…well, Soft Machine – that indefinable something that defines those early-mid 70s albums that sets them apart from just being Jazz rock, fusion or whatever it’s meant to be. They end with a Medley of bits and pieces which include a little teaser from my favourite ‘Seven’ and a Drum Solo from the incredible John Marshall – 76 years old, he looks very happy and he makes the drums sing. Brilliant.
Sold Out venue full of appreciative and respectful Proggers, Jazzers, Art Rockers and their heavy friends.
It made me think..
Given that there are countless bands and indeed solo artists touring that bear only a passing resemblance to their former glories only a massive pedant/bore would deny this band the right to call themselves Soft Machine. They definitely lived up to the name tonight and the capacity crowd seemed to agree. The Soft Machine is alive and well. They promised to come back soon, I hope they take some liberties with more of the back catalogue and do whatever they want with it and maybe record some new stuff with this line up.