Soft Machine

Soft Machine

Acapela Studio, Pentyrch, Cardiff
Thursday, 22nd February 2024

It’s cold and wet outside, but inside the cosy confines of Acapela it’s warm and filled with the smell of freshly baked pizza. Arriving fairly early to make sure I could grab a seat in the front row of the balcony, it’s pint secured and up the stairs I go.

Soft Machine are not a band I know particularly well. I have a few of the albums and have wanted to see them live for quite a while, but something always seems to get in the way and prevents it. However, tonight it’s finally going to happen.

Soft Machine

The current band has a fresh line-up after the death of loooong time drummer (since 1971!) John Marshall, Asaf Sirkis picking up the sticks to add some real wallop. With Fred Baker taking over bass duties a few years ago from the now retired Roy Babbington, there’s a freshness to the rhythm section, over which elder statesman John Etheridge (guitarist since 1975) and relatively young pup Theo Travis (sax, flute and keys since 2006) can cavort. And cavort they do, Etheridge in particular beguiling with otherworldly technique and master of ceremonies good humour, regaling the audience at length with the band’s history of “flounces and deaths” amongst its many luminaries, always wary of his prodigious propensity and telling the crowd to shout “No Waffle!” when he goes on too long. Good naturedly, they do!

Soft Machine - John Etheridge

The vibe is warm and relaxed, but as the band start to play there’s a visceral energy in the air, and they hit the ground running with Facelift from Soft Machine’s 1970 album, Third. Having worked as Soft Machine Legacy for some years, this incarnation is now – quite rightly – using the original name, and the setlist reflects this, taking in pieces from across the band’s history, right back to Joy of a Toy from the first Soft Machine album, released in 1968. Despite having had no original members since the mid-’70s, this is the real deal, and as Etheridge peels off dizzying solos over buzzing rhythms it’s impossible to think otherwise.

Soft Machine

There is reverence and genuine affection for the catalogue of music produced under the Softs’ banner by such a long list of contributors over many decades, and the band do all they can to present the music in the way it should be heard, but with a forward looking zeal that reflects the fact that this is no legacy act and they continue to release new and very worthy music.

Soft Machine - John EtheridgeGesturing to Theo’s table set up of small keyboard, electronics, saxes and flute, Etheridge acclaims his performance on ‘Black and Decker Workmate’, before pointing out that both of them spent the previous evening in Cardiff where they bought new trainers, Theo’s blinding white ones contrasting nicely with John’s more louche black selection and juxtaposing John’s showman role with Theo’s more studious demeanour.

Arranged in almost a square formation due to the confines of the small stage, Fred Baker is behind Etheridge to the left, Asaf Sirkis to the right behind Travis. I’d picked my vantage point well and had a nice view of all of them, easily keeping up with the jazzy switches between leads, Baker’s frequent and fluent soloing showing the full extent of his fretless skills. Sirkis watches intently, following when required, driving forward when the time is right, and he well deserves the solo spot towards the end of the set. A truly majestic player, it’s great to see him in this company. All four provide blowing improvs and solos, Etheridge in particular delighting with amazing technique and coruscating runs, often from a seated position. The man is a true master and I rue the fact that I have missed out on experiencing his live playing until this point. At 76 he plays with the precision and dexterity of someone more than half his age.

The set takes in Third and Fourth, Six and Seven (with Etheridge good naturedly bemoaning the lack of imagination in the naming criteria), Bundles and Softs, as well as recent releases Burden of Proof, Hidden Details and new album Other Doors, from which we get Fell to Earth‘s invocation of the ’60s, The Stars Apart, the title track and the avant garde of The Visitor at the Window and an updated version of Backwards / Noisette as the encore. There’s an unexpected piece by jazz trumpeter Harry Beckett as a showcase for Baker, who previously worked with him, and the first set ends with Mike Ratledge’s Gesolreut. Other highpoints include Travis’ lilting flute through Kings and Queens and Etheridge’s scintillating soloing during Hazard Profile Part One.

Soft Machine - Asaf Sirkis

Etheridge’s frequent whoops and encouragement shows that he’s enjoying the performances of the others as much as we are and it’s a visceral storm of excitement. It’s the last night of the tour and Etheridge pronounces this to be the tightest show they’ve played in this run, deprecatingly appending that with “though it may not sound like it to you!” The sound quality is spot-on and the lights flamboyant, giving the band a real platform to deliver at their best, and Etheridge rightly acknowledges the contribution of both house technicians at the end. Soft Machine finish to a mighty cheer and smiles all around, and as we troop out into the rain we carry the warmth of an exhilarating evening with us.

Soft Machine

Burden of Proof
The Dew at Dawn [by Harry Beckett]
Fell to Earth
Tales of Taliesin
The Stars Apart
Fourteen Hour Dream
– Interval –
Penny Hitch
Other Doors
The Visitor at the Window
Joy of a Toy
King’s and Queens
10.30 Returns to the Bedroom
Middle Burn
Hidden Details
Hazard Profile Part One
~ Encore:
Backwards / Noisette

John Etheridge – Guitar
Theo Travis – Saxophone, Flute, Keyboards
Fred Thelonius Baker – Fretless Bass
Asaf Sirkis – Drums

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