Soft Machine fly loud and free at the Elgar Room

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“He’s not just a roaring, swinging jazz saxophonist, he’s actually got the prog credentials as well!” shouts  John Etheridge introducing bandmate and reeds player Theo Travis, who has played with Gong and King Crimson, to an audience eager to experience, or re-live, the legend. Competitive and convivial by turns, the fiery on-stage relationship between Etheridge and Travis, and the wider band dynamic, embodies a constant theme of tonight’s show.

Under purple, blue and silver lights, The Soft Machine, the first rock band to play the Proms in 1970, albeit with a different line-up then headed by founders Hugh Hopper (bass), Elton Dean (alto sax, saxello), Mike Ratlidge (keyboards) and Robert Wyatt (drums and voice), are now revisiting  the original Summer of Love,  for the new Late Night Jazz sessions’ intimate small stage, with  lead guitarist Etheridge  returning to perform there after thirty years. This set for the Elgar Room, is gleaned from various Soft Machine and Soft Machine Legacy albums, including compositions from classic albums Fourth ('Kings and Queens') and Seven ('The Man Who Waved At Trains').

Etheridge has good reason to exult. He gets to open the first set with  Karl Jenkins’ ‘Bundles’, a big, expansive, busy suite in which the influence of free-form jazz is clearly felt, and which displays his signature bright,  robust,jazz-rock  guitar solos, with a majestic “choral wall of sound”bouncing off his effects pedals.   Travis delights and spellbinds the audience on Mike Ratlidge’s “Chloe and the Pirates”,  with dazzling, high, piccolo-like trills on his tenor sax.

'Voyage Beyond Seven' (Travis also) points up the striking interplay between Etheridge and John Marshall, whose subtly powerful percussion solo in the second set, skilfully anchors the eclectic, disparate elements evident in the music. From a powerhouse of kick-ass sax swing and verve on 'Grapehound', to an abundance of flowing, bubbling, descending basslines delivered by Roy Babbington,  notably on 'Kings and Queens', a powerful rhythmic heart emerges, an alchemical blend of  rock, psychedelica,  free improvisational and experimental music.   The epic poem, “Taliesin”, is soulfully explored by call-and-response interludes between guitar, bass and flute. 

Historically, the ‘Softs’ are part of the renowned Canterbury scene,  known for its early nurturing of touring acts Caravan, Hatfield and the North, and Gong. However, from tonight’s momentous performance it’s clear that there is  plenty of buried treasure for new fans to explore.

– Jasmine Sharif