Soft Machine – Band on the Wall, Manchester – 23 November 2017

Even though this band has been touring for a number of years as ‘Soft Machine Legacy’ there’s an undeniable frisson in going along to see a band called simply Soft Machine for the first time in your life, having pored over their various incarnations from a distance only, for much of the last 30 years.

 

softsSoft Machine, who dropped the ‘Legacy’ part of their name a couple of years back, these days consist of 3 Seventies veterans (John Etheridge, Roy Babbington and John Marshall) as well as Theo Travis, Legacy member for a decade but also Gong’s post-Didier saxophonist in the Nineties. Understandably the setlist takes as its starting point the mid-Seventies jazz crossover material, most particularly the ‘Softs’ album, but liberally samples music from the Soft Machine discography from  ‘Third’ onwards, as well as showcasing strong newer material from the Legacy albums.

The band played two extensive sets, the first interrupted by a brief (and thankfully not serious) medical emergency in amongst the crowd , and worked their way through ‘Bundles’ (the track), and a lovely ‘Song of Aeolus’ from ‘Softs’, interspersed with tracks from more recent Legacy material from ‘Steam’, the superb ‘Voyage Beyond Seven’ from the ‘Burden of Proof’ album, and a very fine set-closer from ‘Live Adventures’.

John Etheridge looked surprisingly youthful, grinning toothfully through an unruly mop of hair, and constantly engaging in languid banter with the crowd and other band members. John Marshall, hidden behind his compact drum kit was mesmerisingly tight, a master technician. Roy Babbington grooved away in acres of space over on the right hand side of the stage, and Theo Travis, alternating between tenor and soprano saxes, flute and keyboards, provided much of the texture for the band one way or another. He has an almost chameleon-like quality to meld into whatever genre he’s doing – stepping into pseudo-Ratledge keyboard meanderings in places, taking up keyboard lines on his flute on others, or brassing out on tenor sax. It’s hard to equate this sometimes with his existence as a mainstay in the somewhat more frivolous Gong all those years ago – he’s just a consummate performer all-round.

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Theo Travis – photo Simon Kerry

The main focal point, however, was undoubtedly Etheridge, his fluidity undiminished through the years, and whilst ‘Aeolus’, to these ears’ might have benefitted from him sustaining his notes a little more on this anthemic guitar track, some of his unfettered soloing elsewhere was truly mindboggling. He even threw in an observation about Karl Jenkins’ tunes requiring him to replace upper parts of his fretboard on a couple of the pieces performed tonight.

If the first half of the set perhaps saw the band continuing to assert its new identity, the second half unashamedly played to its legacy. Starting with another ‘Softs’ album anthem ‘The Tale of Taliesin’ and continuing later with ‘Out of Season’, the band also tackled Bundles’ ‘The Man Who Waved At Trains’, with Travis operating solely on keyboards, before screaming into the highlight of the night – ‘Gesolreut’. Introduced through an outraged and dissonant guitar line, this was a highly funked up version punctuated by saxophone squawks. It brought the house down.

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John Marshall – photo Simon Kerry

I never thought I’d get to see ‘Outbloodyrageous’ from the iconic ‘Third’ album performed live. It’s surely part of the Crown Jewels of the Canterbury scene, and if nothing for me would quite match the rendition on ‘Third’ or the recently unveiled video here,  this version was mighty fine, the Dobson/Dean duo line tackled dextrously on soprano sax and guitar. The only problem that this version, introduced via sampled keyboard loops from Theo Travis, ended far too soon! Would love to hear a full rendition…

The finale was a medley of material from various sources (including ‘Seven’), featuring solos from John Marshall and Roy Babbington and ridiculously prodigious call and response lines from guitar and sax to end the gig on a high. Except that a half-hearted attempt to leave the stage prior to an encore proved fruitless, and soon the band were kicking into ‘Hazard Profile’. The instantly recognisable main theme (let us not forget based around the riff from the Nucleus track ‘Song For The Bearded Lady’ featuring John Marshall and in later incarnations Roy Babbington) morphed into the guitar solo section – with a twist. Allan Holdsworth’s original guitar lines were swiftly forgotten as thunderous, dirty bass lines from Babbington underpinned a most unEtheridge atonal guitar solo – as Theo Travis struggled to rein the piece back in with keyboards. A marvellous conclusion to a fine gig.

One last thought: there’s been a lot of heated debate on music forums about whether this band should go out under the name Soft Machine – for me it’s all a bit too precious. Soft Machine’s music has always been a broad church, taking a route no doubt unintended at its inception, but no less worthy for that. For the many of us unlucky enough not to see the genesis of the band (or indeed any live incarnation until now) our views don’t have to be coloured by chronology: my own personal listening was started by the albums of ‘Third’ ‘5’, ‘Seven’, ‘Bundles’ and ‘Softs’, and I love pretty much all of them, even though the latter 3 are streets apart from Volumes 1, 2  or ‘Jet Propelled Photographs’. Who am I or anyone else to tell 3 Soft Machine stalwarts from the early Seventies that they shouldn’t perform as a band called Soft Machine playing Soft Machine tracks that they in many cases wrote or performed as Soft Machine members 40 years ago! And if the use of the name adds a few extra bums on seats (tonight was sold out), supports the musicians we love, and incentivises them to carry on, then why should any of us be complaining?

 

 

 

 

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