I was musing in the early days of lockdown about the prospect of not seeing live music for a while and working out who I’d miss seeing most. Based on attendance on gigs alone in the last few years, that would have to be Soft Machine, the four piece of John Marshall, Roy Babbington, John Etheridge and Theo Travis, who, since reclaiming the band’s name in its entirety a few years back have undertaken seemingly endless gigging as well as recording a very fine album ‘Hidden Details’.
‘Live at the Baked Potato’ which captures a 2019 US performance, and is available both as an LP and CD, to these ears is a superbly captured document of considerable sonic precision. In fact, at times, it’s only the free-fettered whoops from a charged up audience that remind you that this is a one-off take. But it is fairly indicative what you’re likely to get at a Soft Machine gig these days, blending a number of excellent tracks from ‘Hidden Details’ (and it by no means exhausts that particular album’s fine offerings) with some of the re-interpretations of Soft Machine classics which the band (initially under its Legacy moniker) have honed over the last couple of decades in various incarnations.
I suspect that the live order which we are becoming familiar has been somewhat turned on its head for this release. The album starts with Theo Travis’s startlingly accurate recreation of Mike Ratledge’s keyboard loops for ‘Out-bloody-rageous’ followed by the main theme with guitar and sax romping through the Dobson/Dean dual lines with some gusto before Travis’s free-flowing solo eventually winds things back down. John Marshall’s nightly drum solo is truncated to the ‘Sideburn’ aired here, before moving on to ‘Hazard Profile’, usually saved for an encore. I’m not sure anything for me will now top John Etheridge’s jaw-dropping outpouring last time around at Band on the Wall, but this is still pretty mesmerising stuff, underpinned by Roy Babbigntons growling fuzz bass, and then by Travis’s keyboards underneath Etheridge’s majestic split-tone solo.
Things are immediately brought back down to earth with a lesser-recognised classic. Whilst the tradition of the Legacy band was always to incorporate an interpretation of a Mike Ratledge classic into each new phase of the band (and there’s plenty of evidence of that in this performance), it’s nice to see that Hugh Hopper’s beautiful ‘Kings and Queens’ is still a band staple. Those of you familiar with the ‘Romantic Warriors III’ extras DVD will probably, like myself have had Theo Travis’s haunting flute ringing around their ears as it loops continuously on the main menu. As then, this rendition is beautiful, with the building of layer upon layer of flute a personal highlight of the entire album. ‘Tale of Taliesin’, the iconic track from ‘Softs’ is notable for the way in which breaks out from the beautiful melody to arguably the freeest blow of the album with Etheridge’s somewhat manic solo, backed initially only by Marshall’s rocky backbeat – it provides an unusually stark moment.
It’s then back to the more tranquil waters, with the outstanding duo of ‘new’ ballads: “Heart off Guard” starts off with a quote from the closing bars from ‘Taliesin’ and is a lovely mellow guitar and soprano sax excursion, an interpretation unique to this performance; before leading on to the beautiful lament of ‘Broken Hill’. ‘The Man Who Waved At Trains’, re-interpreted on ‘Hidden Details’ later continues the more gentle vein.
‘Fourteen Hour Dream’ is for me a most un-Soft Machine like track, but none the worse for that, a pleasant dreamy flute-led akin to that of Patrick Forgas band, with a brief keyboard intervention that reminds me of Quiet Sun’s ‘Sol Caliente’.
What really works for this album, aside from the fact that performances are crystal clear, is that there are no dud choices in the repertoire, it’s an excellent representation of the band’s outstanding blending of old and new, with even ‘Life On Bridges’ not deviating into too fractious a freeblow away from its memorable theme. The album is topped off in style with ‘Hidden Details’, this band’s tour de force, the angular, abrasive title track from the first new Soft Machine album in almost 40 years, which has become this band’s calling card. I’ve found that posts on this Soft Machine don’t always seem to get the attention that they merit, or give the band the recognition that their blend of superbly performed old and new material deserves. Personally, I think it’s high time that people woke up to them.
Order your copy from https://www.softmachine.org/ or https://softmachine-moonjune.bandcamp.com/album/live-at-the-baked-potato