Soft Machine: Band on the Wall, Manchester, 17 October 2019

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I wouldn’t want people to think that my social life is a little one-dimensional, but when rifling through my coat pockets before setting out for Soft Machine’s latest gig in Manchester last night I pulled out the ticket for Canterbury Sound gig at the Gulbenkian in Canterbury in June and realised that the last time I’d donned my gig-going leather jacket in anger was also for a Soft Machine gig.

And so for the fourth time in a couple of years (5 if you count the Kozfest performance in 2018 that I heard through the trees – it could have been 6 if you factor in the HRH Prog gig next week that I have tickets for). Same line-up, familiar ground – how could they possibly keep it fresh?

john marshall

The answer is of course obvious: these are consummate musicians for whom no two performances are the same, constantly pulling new rabbits out of the hat in terms of the back catalogue and lucky enough (if that’s the right term) to have an extremely strong album in ‘Hidden Details’ to continue to promote.

For once we arrived at the venue in good time, and were able to make our way almost down to the front of the stage, directly in front of John Etheridge. It struck me that in all my many hours of witnessing musicians at the Band on the Wall, some since its relaunch, but most particularly in the Eighties and Nineties, I have rarely been able to witness musicians at such proximity. With a perfect view of guitarist and the wonderful drumming of John Marshall it was a privilege. Starting with the relatively benign ‘Penny Hitch’, the band were soon ripping into ‘Hidden Details’ and it was here that the band’s abilities to surprise were encapsulated. This particular track has quickly become like an old friend with its reassuringly angular introduction but as it centres around an extended Etheridge solo, and because no two solos are the same, this felt like hearing the piece anew.

john etheridge

‘Fourteen Hour Dream’, a lovely most un-Softs like flute-driven ramble, made its appearance for the first time, the two ballads ‘Heart Off Gold’/’Broken Hill’ genuinely brought a tear to the eye, preceded by a quite wonderful solo filled with Spanish guitar inflections; there was a beautiful version of Hugh Hopper’s ‘Kings and Queens’; and ‘Burden of Proof’, a Legacy number, was dedicated to Allan Holdsworth’s daughter Lynne, who was once again in the audience.  The rasping ‘Gesolreut’, the ever-moving ‘Nettlebed’ from ‘Seven’ (which opened the second set) and ‘One Glove’ from Hidden Details kept things moving at a bluesier, rockier tempo, underpinned by Roy Babbington’s bounding bass.

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But the piece de resistance was ‘Hazard Profile’. I think I’ve heard this every time the Softs have played in recent times – it’s an obvious set-closer, a killer riff and general crowd pleaser. But this was something different: tonight performed with possibly the most jaw-dropping guitar solo I have ever seen, even though by this time we’d moved further back from stage. Starting low-end and filthy it gradually built into a quite mammoth investigation of the fretboard, brought to its conclusion in expert style by Theo Travis’ keyboard chords.

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The two encores (the reception was so enthusiastic it could quite easily have extended to more) were, a little strangely, ‘Chloe and the Pirates’, but more expectedly ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’ which is fast becoming the band’s calling card, although I genuinely think they’d forgotten to play it during the main set.

Above all it was Etheridge’s engaging patter which propelled the night along with obvious bonhomie. I’m sure his quips are not all off the cuff, but they are natural and often hilarious: allusions to Roy Babbington’s need to continue gigging because of a large number of children, Theo Travis’ proclivity for different instrumentation being so great that he’d brought a Black and Decker Workmate on stage, or comments about not vacating their stations for the first encore ‘because we’re too old to get off stage easily’, or even a reference to ‘One (G)love’ being a typographical error. I’m sorry John if I’ve revealed all your best lines, but this was gentle self-deprecatory stuff which enhanced the experience. I don’t think the Band on the Wall was full, but, shorn of the seating area from last time (after all if three septugenarians can keep it going for over 2 hours, then why not their audience?), the atmosphere was electric: other than Etheridge the band generally keep masks of inscrutability, but John Marshall broke out into broad smiles at times, not only whilst interacting with Etheridge, but also, as with the rest of the band as a delighted response to the general adulation.

We were lucky enough to grab an extended chat with Theo Travis and John Etheridge afterwards: both revealed their love for the Band on the Wall – in particular John helped me recall, from nowhere, a gig in the early Nineties(?) where he’d gigged with In Cahoots keyboard player Steve Franklin and ‘Rock School’ bassist Henry Thomas. And I talked with Theo about his superb work with Gong for ‘Zero to Infinity’ and his connection to Steven Wilson. Two masters of their art amongst a band of jazz-rock deities. I’m already looking forward to the next time…

softs dates

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