Soft Machine – Jazz Cafe, London (2nd May 2019)

Despite their original and most recognisable members having long departed, this iteration of Soft Machine still manages to inspire through their exceptional grasp of prog-laden jazz fusion.

Back in the late 1960s, Soft Machine would regularly share the stage with Pink Floyd. While the latter never looked back from the superstardom that soon found them, Soft Machine trundled on deep in the underground, releasing a string of jazz fusion masterpieces. With Nick Mason bringing his Saucerful Of Secrets band to London’s Roundhouse tomorrow (May 3rd) to perform classic Barrett era tunes, it feels like we’re temporarily rolling back 50 years to the psychedelic days of the UFO club.

Although no one on stage tonight was actually a part of Soft Machine when they would perform with Mr Mason every week, three members have still been around since the early 70’s, contributing to the likes of Fourth and Softs. Tonight’s setlist flips between these classic albums and their most recent release, Hidden Details. When prog bands bring out new albums these days, a noticeable drop in quality is pretty much always clear (take the 2014 Yes album Heaven & Earth), but Soft Machine managed to pull off an incredibly convincing set of new material, with enough reworking of old material (such as ‘Out Bloody Rageous’) to satisfy fans.

The title track of their latest release is kicked off with the gloomy guitar tone of John Etheridge, before a fantastically twisting wind line takes the track on a journey. The bass of Roy Babbington quickly becomes the focal point with the funky riff from ‘The Man Who Waved At Trains’ keeping the band’s sound fresh, despite an aging outer casing. While the virtuosic guitar playing of Etheridge and multi-instrumental talents of relative newbie Theo Travis keep the interest of the audience, the rhythm section seems to be lacking in tightness despite their Soft Machine careers teetering on half a decade. But perhaps this is the reason the once mesmerising backbone of the band is slipping slightly…

Etheridge takes his position as spokesperson, delivering a slightly overlong but genuinely humble and funny speech and band introductions, entertaining some bizarre requests including the suggestion that Ed Sheeran support Soft Machine on their next tour. They then revisited some classic pieces, including ‘Out Bloody Rageous’ and ‘Tale Of Taliesin’, with Etheridge’s guitar work again creating the biggest audience response, though Travis’ flute was not far behind.

The main show ended with an enigmatic medley of their very few ‘hits’ that Etheridge self-depreciatingly (yet perhaps unsurprising for an Avant-jazz band) points out “won’t take long”. A drum solo from John Marshall is a particular highlight, who seems to be able to demonstrate his talent with far more accuracy than when competing with Babbington to stay in time, but it is the explosion into ‘Hazard Profile Part 1’ that garners the greatest response from the audience.

Refreshingly, the band acknowledge the expectation to go backstage before returning for an encore, and instead decided to stay put and kick off a couple more tunes pretty much instantly. As a whole, reliving such a classic era of musicality with accuracy and a sense of fun felt like we were being transported to early 70s, although a possible lack of practice may have contributed to some issues in the tightness of the rhythm section.

Soft Machine continue their anniversary tour in October.