Soft Machine – Live at the Baked Potato
(DYAD Records, DY031. CD review by Jon Turney)
Soft Machine Legacy dropped the third word from their name back in 2015, and released the studio CD Hidden Details as good old Soft Machine a few years later. Three of the current line-up – John Etheridge on guitar, Roy Babbington on bass guitar and drummer John Marshall – were in the 1970s editions of the band, so have a good claim to the name. Comparative youngster Theo Travis, ‘only’ with them since 2006, completes the period sound with keyboard contributions on Fender Rhodes, adding saxes and, sumptuously, flute.
For this set from their recent 50th anniversary tour, captured in Los Angeles, they reprise 8 of the 13 pieces from that recording. They also explore three older Softs’ tunes, two by Karl Jenkins and one from Babbington’s long-ago predecessor Hugh Hopper. It’s a very enjoyable hour or so, with all the players audibly happy to commit to the jazz-rock with an occasional pastoral excursion that typified the band in the ‘70s – reminiscent of the Canterbury scene but with more improvising flair than most of the bands tagged with that label.
That flair is well to the fore here. Etheridge makes the most of the solo space, mostly in his Allan Holdsworth plays Frank Zappa mode. The nod to the Mahavishnu Orchestra that begins Hidden Details (opening the studio album, closing the live set), also acknowledges an influence that comes through elsewhere. He’s a marvel of versatility across numerous bands, but this is the best display of his electric sound since a live trio album with Marshall (and Arild Andersen) in 2007.
Add plangent acoustic guitar interludes, incisive contributions from Travis, and beautifully precise, driving drums and bass throughout, and it’s a worthy addition to Soft Machine’s recorded work. Only devotees will want this one as well as Hidden Details, I fancy, but if you don’t have either yet, the live set has that extra excitement you can’t get any other way.