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Soft Machine: Live at the Paradiso 1969

John Kelman By

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In a recent interview guitarist Nels Cline described seeing John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra as "...like having all your body hair singed off in one fell swoop." Similar words could be used to describe British progressive rockers Soft Machine on Live at the Paradiso 1969. Their raw energy and sheer power, recorded in Amsterdam shortly before the release of Volume Two —considered by many to be a defining moment in progressive rock—translates directly from stage to disc on this fine archival release.

And yet this performance almost didn't come to pass. According to bassist Hugh Hopper's liner notes, the group was ready to break apart after their first tour of North America supporting Jimi Hendrix. Vocalist/guitarist Kevin Ayers had retreated to Spain and keyboardist Mike Ratledge had decided to give up live playing. Still, the group had a contractual commitment to follow up on Volume One , and so they recruited Hopper, erstwhile roadie for the band, under the assumption that they would record the album and not do any more gigs. Fortunately for us, that was not to be. Soft Machine would not only continue touring, but with the recruitment of saxophonist Elton Dean, would go on to record their classic Third and remain a viable recording and touring entity for years to come.

But back to '69 and this oft-bootlegged performance at the Paradiso. While there are warts to be found—most notably in the rough vocals of drummer Robert Wyatt, who was clearly having difficulty hearing himself over the wall of sound created by Hopper and Ratledge—this is a surprisingly well-recorded and well-performed show of the Softs working material from Volume Two. And regardless of the volume at which you play this disc, there's no denying that the Softs, at this point, were one loud band, easily capable of competing with a jet engine at fifteen feet. The sheer density of the jazzy "Hibou, Anemone and Bear," which would remain a staple in their live performances long after their repertoire had moved towards the more jazz-rock direction of Third , is remarkable as Ratledge solos, with his signature Lowry organ tone, over the odd-metered rhythmic figure, powerfully delivered by Wyatt and Hopper.

And considering Hopper was only intended as a temporary fill-in, his essential contribution to the band's sound, which would evolve rapidly from the Dada-ist rock of this performance to the more free jazz sounds of Fourth and Fifth in the course of three short years, is undeniable as he snakes his way through the simple vamp of "Dada Was Here," which also features a compelling solo from Wyatt, always an underrated player. And "Fire Engine Passing With Bells Clanging" alludes to the more free approach towards which the Softs would ultimately evolve.

Live at the Paradiso 1969 is an opportunity to hear classic Soft Machine in a transitional period as they moved from a more song-oriented approach to an open-ended concept, to be more fully explored on the ground-breaking Third a mere year later.


Track Listing: Hulloder; Dada Was Here; Thank You Pierre Lunaire; Have You Ever Been Green?; Pataphysical Introduction Part II; As Long as He Lies Perfectly Still; Fire Engine Passing With Bells Clanging; Hibou, Anemone and Bear; Fire Engine Passing With Bells Clanging (reprise); Pig; Orange Skin Food; A Door Opens and Closes; 10:30 Returns to the Bedroom

Personnel: Mike Ratledge (organ), Hugh Hopper (bass), Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals)

Title: Live at the Paradiso 1969 | Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: Voiceprint Records


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