Soft Machine played first NYC shows since 1974 for band’s 50th anniversary (pics, review)
Soft Machine are an enigma and an anomaly. With an ever-changing lineup and stylistic shifts, musically, fans often debate about what is the “best” Soft Machine. There are the early years — Kevin Ayers on bass, Daevid Allen on guitar (both are now deceased), Mike Ratledge on keyboards and the inimitable Robert Wyatt on drums — who recorded only Volume One together, though it is a prog rock/psychedelic masterpiece. Then the lineup changes started in earnest. By the time they released the album Third which was augmented by an expanded lineup, the core of the group was what many now refer to as the “classic quartet” featuring only Robert Wyatt and Ratledge from the original lineup, along with Hugh Hopper on bass and Elton Dean on sax (both of whom are also now deceased). By this time their style had evolved into almost exclusively instrumental prog rock and jazz with side-long compositions. This quartet lineup was on Fourth but was again augmented by several session musicians, including bassist Roy Babbington who would become a permanent member later. Then came more lineup changes and at a ferocious pace. John Marshall came in on drums replacing the recently paralyzed Wyatt for the album Fifth and, on Six, Karl Jenkins replaced Dean. The great guitarist Alan Holdsworth was briefly a member on Bundles (their eighth recording and the first not titled by a number) and soon replaced by John Etheridge for Softs. At this point they had become a straightforward jazz fusion outfit and were a prominent band in that movement.
To this writer and photographer, the “classic quartet” was always the best Soft Machine, and Third and Fourth are a couple of my all-time favorite recordings. However, I greatly enjoyed Soft Machine albums right up through Softs (their ninth long player). Having never seen any incarnation of the band I was excited to see that Soft Machine had announced their 50th anniversary tour, were supporting a new album Hidden Details, and that it would be the first time the band had been in the US since 1974. While I never expected this to be as mind blowing as that prime period I did think that it could deliver a solid jazz fusion set and I was not wrong.
Playing for five sets over Friday, Saturday and Sunday at NYC’s Iridium the lineup featured Roy Babbington on bass (now the longest member), John Marshall on drums, John Etheridge on guitar (all three were members since the 70’s) and, rouding things out, former Gong member Theo Travis on sax, flute and Fender Rhodes piano. I saw Saturday night’s performances and the many fans who attended both sets were rewarded by very different tracks performed in each set. The late set drew more heavily from the current album but both sets featured old classics which, to me, were the highlights of the shows. Hearing reworked and abbreviated versions of “Out Bloody Rageous” and “Facelift” (from Third) was fantastic and “Kings and Queens” (from Fourth), “Chloe and the Pirates” (from Six), “The Man Who Waved at Trains” (from Bundles) and “The Song of Aeolus” and “The Tale of Taliesin” (both from Softs) were certainly a joy to see performed live as well.
The rhythm section of Babbington and Marshall was extraordinarily precise, propelling the quartet and proving how great these musicians are regardless of what era Soft Machine they played for. Travis added a lot of depth with his multi-instrumental talents and Etheridge absolutely soared on guitar. The sold-out crowd for the first set loved every minute of it and the much smaller audience for the second set remained as vocal and deeply appreciative of the performance, especially when Etheridge announced they were about to perform Facelift. Marshall even did a solid drum solo toward the end of the set that proved he had lost nothing.
While I readily admit I’ve never heard anything after Softs or any of the recordings by the current line up I was sufficiently impressed enough that I think it might be time to explore some later period Soft Machine. Yes, while this isn’t your father’s or your father’s father’s Soft Machine anymore (your dad/grandfather knew what he was talking about sometimes!) there’s still a lot of great music to be heard if you toss off old preconceptions and accept it for what it is, the new Soft Machine, very much alive and kicking in their own way and on their own terms.
You can stream the new Soft Machine album below.
review and photos by Greg Cristman