Soft Machine Kendal Brewery Arts Centre 19 March 2016
When I was a teenager I would listen intently to “In Concert” on the radio. There are three broadcasts that I recall very strongly. The first was by Led Zeppelin, recorded at the Albert Hall; the second Fleetwood Mac; and the other was Soft Machine. It will have been 1970 or 1971. Of the three, the Soft Machine concert was, for me, the most memorable. I still remember the impact it had. The strange sounds coming out of my radio intrigued me; I immediately became a fan. The music was so different to that of other bands, and to anything else I was listening to at the time. If I remember correctly, the concert was introduced by John Peel, who championed Soft Machine at the time. Their “songs’ sounded like long improvisations; however I now realise that was the nature of the band’s music and the songs were probably more planned than I thought. I think they may have played “Moon in June”, “Facelift” and a few other tracks from “Soft Machine 3”.
I only got to see Soft Machine live twice. Both occasions were in the mid-70s; by which time Soft Machine had completed its transformation from psychedelia to jazz-rock. The first time I saw the band was at the Reading Festival, and the second at Newcastle Guildhall as part of the Newcastle Jazz Festival. Last night I took up on the chance of seeing Soft Machine again; when the latest line-up performed at Kendal Brewery Arts Centre.
The current line-up of Soft Machine was launched (initially as Soft Machine Legacy) in 2004. The line-up consisted of Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper, John Etheridge and John Marshall: four long-time members from different eras of the legendary group. In 2006 Elton Dean sadly passed away and his place on sax and flute was taken by Theo Travis, who has an association with Gong and David Gilmour and is a long time fan of Soft Machine’s music. Hugh Hopper sadly passed away in 2008. His place was taken by veteran bass player Roy Babbington, who first joined the group in 1970. This reunited 3/5ths of the 1975-77 Soft Machine line-up. Since 2010 the band has recorded a new, and highly acclaimed album “Burden of Proof” and they continue to tour. “Burden of Proof” is (from the venue website): “a collection of songs that basically has something for everyone; challenging jazz-fusion, adventurous prog-rock, bits of chaotic free-jazz, atmospheric instrumental pop-jazz, and even a little hard rock. Extraordinary!”
I had an uneventful drive over to Kendal, and took my seat in the Malt Room of the Brewery Arts Centre. Last time I was here was to see Marianne Faithful; which was some years ago. It’s a great venue and regularly features some classic acts. I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from Soft Machine; I guess I thought I might find the jazzy instrumental nature of the songs a little hard going. But I also knew that it was going to be worth the effort in order to reacquaint myself with the music of Soft Machine.
The band came onstage just before 8.30pm and launched straight into “The Steamer” from the 2006 Soft Machine Legacy album “Steam”. The sound was clear, crisp. The music a mix of jazz and prog. Guitarist John Etheridge introduced the songs and seemed to be taking the lead. He explained how the last incarnation of Soft Machine had seen former members put old disputes behind them, and how time had allowed that to happen. He also explained that veteran Soft’s drummer John Marshall was unwell, suffering from a bad back and unable to make this tour. The guy standing in did an excellent job.
The concert comprised two sets and drew from Soft Machine’s extensive back catalogue, going back to 1970 and “3” for “Facelift” and to “4” for “Kings and Queens”. The music was much more varied than I had imagined, and ranged from guitar-riff-driven hard rock, through jazz (with mucho sax) to atmospheric flute-led prog; the latter songs being my own favourites. The musicianship was excellent, and Etheridge joked and talked to the audience a lot more than I had anticipated. In fact, he explained that “back in the day” the members of Soft Machine would never speak to, or acknowledge, the audience. The evening passed quickly, and I realised that I had after all enjoyed it; actually a lot. It was very much a concert; rather than a rock gig; but hey that’s just fine for me these days.
The concert finished shortly after 10.30pm; I was back home around 12.30am. I’ve spent this morning playing my vinyl copies of Soft Machine “3” and “4”. Happy days.
Set 1: The Steamer; Hazard Profile; Chloe and the Pirates; Voyage beyond Seven; Song of Aeolus; Grape Hound
Set 2: Burden of Proof; Facelift / the Last Day; Kings and Queens; Relegation of Pluto / Transit
Archive for the ‘Soft Machine’ Category
Soft Machine Kendal Brewery Arts Centre 19 March 2016
Soft Machine Live 1974 and 1975
I saw Soft Machine twice; once at a concert at Newcastle Guildhall on 29 June 1974, and again at Reading Festival on August bank holiday weekend 1975. But my first recollections of Soft Machine are much earlier. I recall listening to a Radio 1 in concert by the band in the late 60s or early 70s, and was totally blown away by the experimental free-form improvisation, which was, to a young teenager, simply mind-blowing and unlike anything I had heard; very different from the rock and pop that I was listening to at the time. I held that concert in my mind, but it was a few years until I finally got to see the band. By then they had transformed from the early psych band of the late 60s to a much more jazz-oriented outfit playing purely instrumental concerts, featuring long numbers with extended improvisation. Allan Holdsworth had joined the band and they had become a much more guitar-oriented band. They were promoting their album ‘Bundles’ at the time and the line up at the time was Mike Ratledge – keyboards; John Marshall – drums, percussion; Karl Jenkins – oboe, saxophone, keyboards, synthesisers; Roy Babbington – bass and Allan Holdsworth – guitar. By the time I saw them at Reading Holdsworth had been replaced by John Etheridge.
The 1974 concert that I attended was part of the Newcastle Jazz Festival. I found a review of that concert in Melody Maker, posted on the website of support act the Steve Brown Band: “The Softs began to project their intricate, fluent music to a packed house. Each solo was performed to perfection, especially some stunningly complex drumming from John Marshall. They blended their inborn jazz origin with the essential urgency of rock to full effect and produced a generally rich all-round sound. Allan Holdsworth emerged as one of the all-round stars of the evening with some really fine guitar playing on “Hazard Profile”, “Floating World” and the exceptional “The Man Who Waved At Trains”. If I remember correctly this was a late night concert with doors at 9pm, and Soft Machine coming on stage very late, and sadly we had to leave before the end to catch our train home.
Neil commented on one of my earlier posts on a 1975 City Hall concert by Soft Machine, which I missed: “Soft Machine came on and didn’t speak a word all night to a third full City Hall. Incredible gig – can still picture Mike Ratledge doing a solo bit – as the band were walking off he just played one note that went on forever. Marshall did a lengthy drum solo and Karl Jenkins showed us he had something special and he’s proved it lately with his popular classical works.” (Thanks Neil).
A bootleg exists of the Reading performance I witnessed which records the set as: The Floating World; Ban Ban Caliban; Out of Season; Bundles; Land of Bag Snake; The Man Who Waved At Trains; Peff. Mind-blowing stuff.
An amazing and much missed act, who successfully blended rock, jazz and prog to produce a unique, challenging sound. I notice that John Marshall and John Etheridge sometimes perform these days as Soft Machine Legacy and have been meaning to go and see them.