Is a Monday gig in Manchester the jazz musicians’ equivalent of football’s ‘rainy Tuesday night in Stoke’, (a term coined to indicate a tough date out in the wilds)? That is what was faced the Soft Machine for their eighth date of a sporadic tour which has taken them up and down the country this spring. Since the last time they were here, stalwart Roy Babbington has hung up his bass, whilst John Marshall is appearing only on gigs close to home, the result of ongoing health problems. This means that joining the current lineup of John Etheridge and Theo Travis are two nevertheless familiar faces: Fred Baker (now a permanent member of the band and with a stellar CV, not least as Phil Miller’s right hand man in In Cahoots – and co-author of the wonderful ‘Double Up 2’ recent release); and drummer Nic France, who I think appeared with the band on a recent live streamed performance.
The Band on the Wall, Manchester’s iconic jazz venue, has been refurbished since I last visited before COVID, with a new expanded bar area next door and an enlarged stage in the main hall, which the band appreciatively commented on. The talismanic old BOTW logo has sadly gone, but sound was crisp as ever, and with a few tickets unsold, there was a feeling of space in front of stage (blame that Monday night syndrome). Not that the band were daunted: it was clear from the roar of applause following the established set-opener ‘Hidden Details’ that the atmosphere was a step up from the tour’s previous gigs. There were new pieces from the Softs’ repertoire incorporated for the first time in my memory at least (‘Backwards’/’Noisette’ from ‘Third; ‘Penny Hitch’ from ‘Seven’; as well as ‘The Nodder’ from ‘Alive and Well in Paris’, a slightly downbeat finale to the first set), regular favourites such ‘Chloe and the Pirates’ and ‘Tales of Taliesin’; and deserved showcases for some of the best tracks from the very strong current album ‘Hidden Details’ including ‘Fourteen Hour Dream’.
Something about the even more familiar highlights in a moment, but a word or two first about the surprises: two extremely strong new pieces: an acknowledged nod to Sixties influences on Theo Travis’s open-ended ‘Fell to Earth’, and the muscular, weaving changes of John Etheridge’s ‘Other Doors’ where Nic France really stated what he brings to the band with some tight, up-front rhythms. It would be lovely to hear more of both of these tracks to get to know them better, first impressions were extremely favourable and suggested that despite line-up changes and COVID, the momentum of recent years is gathering apace again. Add to this a completely unexpected rendition of ‘Joy of a Toy’ (the Soft Machine track rather than Kevin Ayers’ solo continuation) essentially a showcase for the thunderous bass of Fred Baker, who throughout the night brought a dexterous, fluid, grooving feel to proceedings, with a joie de vivre never far from the surface.
Theo Travis alternated between strident tenor sax on the punchier pieces; beautiful floating flute on ‘Kings and Queens’, ‘Backwards’ and ‘Chloe’, often looped threefold; and keyboard accompaniment underneath many of John Etheridge’s guitar lines, although one of the advantages of having Fred Baker on board is a range of different harmonic alternatives to themes created by the two main soloists. John Etheridge has carved out a memorable mid-set trio of guitar pieces performed from his stool left of stage, a beautiful (and I think untitled) multi-layered guitar loop piece, followed by two lovely ballads from Hidden Details: ‘Heart off Guard’ and ‘Broken Hill’, but pride of place goes to the instantly recognizable riff of ‘Hazard Profile’, a platform for some quite mind-bending high end guitar heroics from Etheridge and outrageous fuzz-bass from Baker; and second encore ‘Gesolreut’ which gets ever more funky, squawky and tonight super extended to test the upper limits of the city centre curfew. As with Gong 9 days before in Hebden Bridge, the sense of an evolving two way connection between band and enthusiastic crowd was palpable: a rapturous reception early on in the performance is continually reciprocated as the band continue to push things just a little bit further. Here’s to many more Monday nights like this…
Many thanks to Joe Orban for the photographs used here