“You’re in for a treat,” said the gentleman at the door. He was right. We were at Talking Heads, in Southampton, to see the Soft Machine.
Now I have waxed lyrical about this group before (in Musical Bodies), and I have waxed lyrical about Talking Heads before (in But I don’t dance). This venue has moved to a modern brick building, nearer to the station and the centre of Southampton. I feared it might have lost something, but it is still excellent, if lacking in the charm of the old building. The sound is great, the beer is great and the facilities are great. Above all, the people, staff and audience, are friendly and welcoming.
Soft Machine…. It’s not an exaggeration to say they are a legendary band. Founded by Daevid Allen, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and Mike Ratledge in 1966, they have been innovators in psychedelia, jazz, rock, jazz-rock, prog-rock…. and so on. No single member of the original line-up is left. However, this is not a tribute band. It is a living, developing, creative force.
Originally, this version of the group was called Soft Machine Legacy; but if anybody had a right to use the name Soft Machine, they did. At present they consist of John Etheridge on guitar, Roy Babbington on bass, Theo Travis on sax and keyboards, and, for this gig, Nic France on drums. Their musicianship can only be described as excellent. They have played with musicians like Stephane Grappelli, John Williams, Robert Fripp, David Gilmour… the list is too long to continue. I saw Etheridge a long time ago with Stephane Grappelli, and also Theo Travis at two magical Gong gigs.
Now the music consists of pieces from as far back as 1970 (‘Facelift’), right up to the present (their latest CD, ‘Burden of Proof’.) It could perhaps be described as jazz/ prog/ rock, but all that would be misleading. It’s just lovely music.
They played ‘Hazard Profile’, a very rocky piece, with the original organ part transformed by Theo on sax, so it has become something wondrous and new. ‘Facelift’, never a favourite of mine, again becomes something more than refreshed, something more than revitalised- reinvented? It contains some much freer sections, as does a very new tune, ‘Voyage Beyond Seven’. I’m tempted to say there are some free jazz parts, but I will probably be told I’m ill-informed. ‘Grapehound’ is again newer, and rockier, and is Mrs Oblique’s favourite.
All through, the playing is brilliant. Powerful and sympathetic bass lines, and drumming which is somehow not just rock or just jazz, underpin, complement and sometimes lead the sax and guitar. I particularly liked the drum solo, which led into a duet with the guitar, the rhythmic ideas feeding off each other. Theo Travis is officially my favourite sax player, not that my opinion is very expert. (But I know what I like!) Nearly at the end John Etheridge completely let rip with a solo, demonstrating what a fine (and versatile) guitarist he is. He played most of the gig with a smile on his face, which said a lot.
I really felt emotional about this one. After years of following this constantly evolving, divisive, innovative band (but never seeing them) I thought the ghosts of Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen, Hugh Hopper, Elton Dean and probably others would be there. I didn’t see them. (But I’m not ‘sensitive’ anyway.) Instead, I saw a modern, vibrant, energetic band, respecting the past but moving forward, who seem to enjoy what they are doing, hugely. I cannot recommend them highly enough, even to people who know nothing about the Soft Machine history. Thank you- it was, indeed, a treat.
(I would love to include a current photo of the band, but don’t have one which might be copyright free. If anybody knows of one, I’d be grateful to know.)
24th March 2016