AMN Reviews: Soft Machine in Chicago, October 21, 2018

Soft Machine played at Reggies in Chicago as part of Progtoberfest IV. David Ashcraft was there to enjoy the show and learn a little more about the band’s history.

The last time that Soft Machine played in the US it was 1974, Allan Holdsworth was holding down the guitar chair, and Mike Ratledge was still in the band. The mercurial Holdsworth then abruptly left Soft Machine on the eve of their 1975 British tour to join Tony Williams’ band in the states. On his way out the door, Allan recommended the relatively unknown John Etheridge as his replacement. John had played on three albums with ex-Curved Air violinist Darryl Way in a band called Wolf, but he knew that he’d have to build his soloing stamina to follow in the footsteps of Holdsworth. According to the liner notes from the excellent British Tour ’75 CD John jammed with the Softs in a pub for his audition and was told by John Marshall “you’ll do”.

The 2018 version of Soft Machine played Reggies’ Progtoberfest gig in October, and the band was in superb form. Gary Husband had replaced John Marshall for this leg of the tour so the band had a much more muscular sound than the incarnation that streamed their show from Iridium in NYC a week before. They played multiple tracks from the new album Hidden Details (MoonJune Records) which is highly recommended. They reprised two Mike Ratledge classics, The Man Who Waved at Trains from Bundles and Out Bloody Rageous from Third. They also played Hugh Hopper’s hypnotic Kings and Queens as well as a highly energized (and speeded up)  Gesolreut from Six. Apparently, they had checked with Ratledge about dropping the “Legacy” from their name and just billing themselves as Soft Machine, and he “didn’t care”.

Based on the material that spanned the band’s history and the presence of many long-term band members in my mind they are entirely justified in billing themselves as Soft Machine. They played two of the tunes that I used to feature on my college radio shows, Tales of Taliesen from Softs and Hazard Profile from Bundles, which originally featured perhaps some of Holdsworth’s most jaw-dropping soloing. Theo Travis’s playing was extraordinary on tenor, soprano, and especially his sterling flute work. He also doubled on a vintage electric piano to add another element to the music.

John Etheridge was the highly entertaining MC for the band as he introduced tunes and chatted up the appreciative audience. Theo is a bit introverted in person, but he has a nice travel blog on Facebook that’s well worth reading.

I had met John a couple of times before and found him to be very friendly and funny. I was amazed when he remembered some of the details of our first meeting (in Hartford’s Bushnell park playing with violinist Stephane Grappelli back in the early 80’s). We had a great conversation that covered several points in his long career. One of the best stories about John was told by Theo on stage as he mentioned that when John was playing in London with one of his first bands that he was approached by Jimi Hendrix who commented favorably on John’s playing! Of course, much later John did an album with Nigel Kennedy that featured semi-classical versions of Hendrix tunes.

I was first turned on to Etheridge when I bought the third Darryl Way’s Wolf album Night Music which featured a fantastic instrumental by John mysteriously entitled Flat 2-55. I used to play it on my college radio shows but I had no idea what the title meant. John solved the mystery by explaining that it was his address at the time! We also discussed the brilliant 1980 album Second Vision (with Ric Sanders of Soft Machine) and John said that just as the album was released there was a huge strike in the UK and the album sank without a trace. The album is all instrumental and is very much worth tracking down for the excellent compositions and playing.

I also brought a copy of the wonderful 1994 acoustic duo album Invisible Threads that John did with Andy Summers. He mentioned that it had been reissued so you might be able to find a copy. John also played with John Williams (of classical guitar fame) and he mentioned that his gig at Chicago’s symphony hall with Williams (which I unfortunately missed) was the single best-paying gig of his life.

John shared that Soft Machine was perpetually struggling financially, even in the days of the original band when they sold plenty of albums and were a household name. They were pleased with how well the new CD Hidden Details has done and in general by the turnout for this tour. The NYC gigs were pretty much sold out, and they had folks who stuck around for both shows at Iridium. I had spent the week prior to the concert listening to my Soft Machine (and Soft Machine Legacy) CD’s, and the British Tour 1975 was a particular favorite. The liner notes are excellent and feature interviews with Marshall and Etheridge. John told me a story that after he was hired by the band, that the guys in the band were rather dour and introverted. He’d play what he thought was an outstanding solo in rehearsal and no one said a word! It made him a bit insecure but eventually he got over it.

The 1975 British tour included lots of bands (Mahavishnu Orchestra/Wishbone Ash/Caravan) and was put together by Stewart Copeland’s brother Miles. The low point of the trip was when Miles went bankrupt on the runway in Germany and they had to take a long and very slow flight on a cargo plane back home! He said that all of the other musicians were friendly (except for one famous guitarist who back then was a bit stand-offish). According to Gary Husband, who toured with him last fall, he’s quite a nice guy now.

So there you have it – a few musical tidbits and perhaps a slight bit of inside scoop from John. The band truly appreciated everyone that came out to the gig and that have bought Hidden Details. Thanks as always to Leonardo of MoonJune Records for putting out their CD’s and for booking the concerts. There are still plenty of chances to see them on the UK leg of the tour and also an upcoming West coast swing. This is truly an historic event and a show that you do not want to miss!

– David Ashcraft