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Soft Machine at the Beachland Ballroom

Matt Hooke By

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Soft Machine
Beachland Ballroom
Cleveland, OH
October 18, 2018

A disco ball may have been spinning at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland Ohio, but this was no dance party. Instead, Soft Machine brought their brand of progressive jazz-rock to the venue with the energy of a band a fraction of its age.

The band came to the Ballroom as part of an international tour celebrating the release of Hidden Details (Moonjune), the band's first album since 2013's Burden of Proof (Moonjune). Hidden Details marks the band's first album under its original name since the 1980s; all its other 2000s releases are under the name Soft Machine Legacy.

"To me, Soft Machine Legacy and Soft Machine are the same thing," said Leonardo Pavkovic, the head of MoonJune Records. "It was [late bassist] Hugh Hopper who didn't want to use the name Soft Machine."

The band has undergone many transformations over the years in both lineup and sound, going from a psychedelic rock group in the late 1960s, to a jazz fusion outfit in the mid-1970s, so it makes sense for the band to return to its original name. After Soft Machine broke up in 1981, Pavkovic spurred a reunion in 2004 by contacting several former members of the group.

"It was really Leonardo's inspiration," said guitarist John Etheridge on the initial reunion. "We enjoyed ourselves. '70s Soft Machine didn't enjoy itself very much; it was a bit serious, [so] everyone was a bit tentative about getting back together, but it worked out very nicely."

The four-piece band on display at Beachland featured two members from the group's 1970s peak. Etheridge joined the band in 1975, replacing the legendary Allan Holdsworth, who personally recommended the guitarist as his replacement. Bassist Roy Babbington first joined in 1973, after Hopper left the band, once again rejoining the group in 2009, after Hopper's death. Drummer John Marshall joined in 1972, but was absent at Beachland due to personal reasons, replaced by veteran musician Gary Husband. Theo Travis, who plays reeds, woodwinds and piano, replaced the late Elton Dean in 2006, following his passing. Travis is the only core member of the current iteration of Soft Machine not connected to band's earlier years. Travis met the band through the wider UK jazz scene.

"In the '70s, people would leave," said Etheridge on the band's lineup. "But now they actually leave and go to the big jam session in the sky."

Soft Machine's long history gives it plenty of material to work with, and the group took full advantage, creating a set with tremendous variation in structure and tone, all held together by their jazz-rock roots and musicianship.

The band began with the title track from Hidden Details, spearheaded by a sinister dissonant riff by Etheridge. Babbington and Husband set a heavy groove, fueled by the bassist's galloping line and Husband's aggressive style. After the heaviness of "Hidden Details," Soft Machine moved in a lighter direction with "The Man Who Waved at Trains" from Bundles (Harvest, 1975). The band remade the track for Hidden Details, with Travis's flute replacing the original's soprano saxophone melody.

"Life on Bridges" conjured up images contrary to its title. Bridges, good ones at least, are paragons of stability, testaments to man's engineering abilities. "Life on Bridges," however, was an Ornette Coleman-inspired free improvisation, with every musician going off the rails. Babbington used a hyper trebly tone more akin to a guitar than bass, Etheridge sang along with his guitar phrasing, while Husband performed a frantic drum part, to help create the audio equivalent of chaos. Once the chaotic instrumental calmed down, Travis' soaring flute cut through the mix like a dove escaping a fire, as the band moved to a sparse, relaxed atmosphere.

"Whatever anyone wants to do you trust them," said Travis on the free-form improvisation of "Life on Bridges." "You know the musicians and what they like to do, and if they take it out, then that's great. It's nice to just let people go. That's the spirit of being free musically. We don't do it on every song, but on some songs, it's nice to let people improvise as openly and imaginatively as they want to."

The band's use of unison lines, with Etheridge, Babbington, and Travis playing the same phrase often harmonized in thirds or fifths, gave additional weight to the band's melodies. Soft Machine's ability to switch from displays of raw power to beautiful atmospherics created a balance that prevents the audience from being bludgeoned by heaviness or put to sleep by a lack of energy.

Show-opener Beledo had a similar ear for sonic variety, but along with switching styles he also switched instruments, going from solo piano pieces to a guitar duo with Cleveland-based guitarist Bob Nagy.

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